What does a man’s name say about him?
According to “The Infidel,” the 2010 British comedy that opens next week’s JFilm Festival, the answer is a lot, especially when he’s got two: Mahmud Nasir and Solly Shimshillewitz.
“The Infidel” tells the story of a Muslim family man preparing for his son’s wedding to the step-daughter of an ultra-religious Muslim leader — just in time for the discovery that he was adopted. His birth parents? Jews.
So starts the dual life of Mahmud, played with an almost slapstick physicality by comedian Omid Djalili, in which he wants to learn about his Jewish roots in order to meet his dying Jewish father, all the while brushing up his Muslim knowledge to meet Asrhad El-Masri (Yigal Naor), the bold, bearded stepfather of the bride.
At first mention, the premise seems a bit ridiculous, and even forced: Muslim man finds out he’s a Jew, has near-existential meltdown. But there isn’t too much “what does it all mean?” melodrama. Instead, the film’s quick-witted writing keeps things aloft with punchy sarcasm and just a taste of poignancy.
To learn the ways of the Jew, Mahmud needs a teacher. He finds one in cab driver Lenny (Richard Schiff of “The West Wing”), a self-defaming, Jew-generalizing secular American who followed his wife to England just to watch her leave for another man. Lenny’s character capitalizes on the sense that, as a Jew himself, he can poke caustic fun at the Jewish people. Schiff is hilarious as that Jew-bashing grumpy uncle we all have.
Because this is a movie, not real life, Mahmud needs a ticking clock working against him. He’s got it in his dying birth father — who he is blocked from seeing by an Orthodox rabbi manning his father’s deathbed. Knowing he had a Muslim son, says the rabbi, would surely kill the old man. And so the Jew-ification begins.
In a hilarious montage showing Lenny’s lessons to Mahmud, we see him loading the newfound Jew with books on the Holocaust and “Serious Illnesses,” novels by Philip Roth and bowls of matzo ball soup. When the two sit listening to “Hatikva,” Lenny says, “Doesn’t it make you want to load all your possessions in a wooden cart and pull them slowly, sadly away from your burning village?”
At a completely schlocky bar mitzva, Lenny pushes Mahmud headfirst into the Jewish community. The two outcasts stand in the back, Lenny teaching Mahmud the many different Jewish stereotypes.
“What kind of Jew is that?” asks Mahmud when a long-haired, open-shirted man walks by.
“That’s a hippie Jew. Bohemian parents, now a Buddhist,” says Lenny.
“How does that work?”
“He believes you should renounce all material possessions but keep all the receipts.”
But “The Infidel” is an equal opportunity offender; the film strikes a great balance at satirizing both Jewish and Muslim culture, and as Mahmud learns more about his father’s religion that he believed foreign for so long, he realizes the idiosyncrasies of his own culture.
The film’s subplots abound — from Mahmud’s attempts to meet his father to his efforts to keep his Judaism a secret from his wife to his impending meeting with El-Masri. Things come to a head when Mahmud finally comes out with the news — and he quickly watches his world fall apart. Society, he learns, isn’t quite ready for a Muslim who is also a Jew.
Aside from an ending too overwrought to be remotely believable, Mahmud’s struggle is somehow, oddly, relatable. Being so comically caught between two disparate cultures, Mahmud points out the inherent flaws and hilarious aspects of both — he’s stuck between his Muslim family’s stoic, almost formal nature and the over-sharing of Jews (As Lenny says, “Finding out you’re Jewish doesn’t mean that every moment is a therapeutic opportunity”).
“The Infidel” is a comedy, and for good reasons. While the flick isn’t too preachy, its message is important: when we take a step back, our differences are so petty it’s almost laughable.
(Justin Jacobs can be reached at Justinj@thejewishchronicle.net.)