The Infidel, dir. Josh Appignanesi (Revolver)
Is it wrong to make fun of religion? If religion represents what its adherents take completely seriously, has anyone got the right to mock their beliefs? Debate usually ends up with a discussion of the Monty Python film, The Life of Brian. Some say that it undermines the Christian faith by laughing at the whole idea of a Messiah; but others say that its real target is the unthinking obedience of his followers. I’m inclined to the latter view, not forgetting a third, all-important consideration: is it actually funny? Well, I still consider that its witty challenge to mindless discipleship stands up well, and moments like this still raise a smile:
BRIAN: Look, you’ve got it all wrong! You don’t need to follow me, you don’t need to follow anybody! You’ve got to think for your selves! You’re all individuals!
CROWD: Yes! We’re all individuals!
It’s worth noting that one of the Python team was Terry Jones, who in his spare time was (and is) a scholar of medieval literature, with a special interest in the work of Geoffrey Chaucer. Here one thinks of the scathing descriptions of the corrupt clergy of his day which Chaucer included in the ‘General Prologue’ to The Canterbury Tales: for example, the worldly, self-indulgent monk. There again, Chaucer makes sure he includes a positive portrait, that of the poor parson, which suggests that the church is not entirely corrupt. By implication, of course, Jesus – whom the parson does his best to imitate – is himself the revered and unnamed inspiration behind the poet’s vision: it is not he who is the target; rather, those who have debased his teaching. You might say that The Life of Brian does something similar: it mocks the very sort of people whom Jesus himself denounced, that is, those who dogmatically follow the letter of religion while entirely missing its spirit.
So how does The Infidel, now out on DVD, compare as a humorous critique of what can easily go wrong with religion? The main thing to bear in mind is that this film, written by David Baddiel and directed by Josh Appignanesi over thirty years after the Pythons’ masterpiece, addresses a much more difficult context. The Python team only had Mary Whitehouse, Malcolm Muggeridge and the odd Anglican bishop to worry about. Baddiel and Appignanesi are having to make their way across a minefield of religious and cultural anxieties. Here Christianity isn’t the focus, but those other two Abrahamic faiths, Judaism and Islam. All three have witnessed an alarming rise in fanaticism and fundamentalism, but the film carefully avoids criticising the beliefs of either Jews or Muslims; it pulls no punches, however, in addressing the issue of extremism.
The main protagonist of the film is Mahmud Nasir, played with panache by the comedian Omid Dijali. Living a comfortable life as a partner in a minicab company, his faith is so moderate as to be almost non-existent: he seems more devoted to the memory of a 1980s ‘synth pop’ singer than to the teachings of the prophet. His problem is that his son wants to marry into the family of radical jihadist preacher, and so he is expected to convince this dictatorial patriarch of his devoutness and doctrinal purity. If this situation weren’t bad enough, he discovers that he is, in fact, Jewish by birth and Muslim only by adoption. Much of the film is about his quest for identity. Failing to impress his son’s prospective father-in-law with his Islamic credentials, he hardly does better in his attempt to gain access to his dying Jewish father by adopting the mannerisms and expressions taught him by a local taxi driver – initially a hated foe, as a Jew and as a rival for a parking space, but subsequently a dear friend.
Things go from bad to worse when Nasir attends a Free Palestine demonstration, and his Jewish identity becomes known to the Muslims present – and thereafter to the whole nation, thanks to television reporting. It is a real achievement on Baddiel’s and Appignanesi’s part that they can extract so much humour from the increasingly dark world which Nasir plunges into. I won’t reveal the ending, but suffice it to say that the final sequence of the film, in which this very ordinary man proves himself a cultural hero, is quietly impressive – even if the message of the film, about the evils of extremism, is spelt out a little too deliberately.
Without spoiling the plot, it’s worth pointing out that a motif of the film is the idea of having difficulty in seeing. This turns out to be dramatically significant, but it also reminds us of the film’s concern with the way a sense of religious righteousness can blind us to our own weakness and to the needs of our fellow-humans.
Where, though, does it leave us with regard to the choice between Judaism and Islam? Again, I won’t disclose the details of Nasir’s final stance, but in their moderate forms both emerge comparatively unscathed. As far as the experience of watching the film is concerned, though, I’d have to say that the humour belongs mainly to the Jewish side of the equation. To see Omid Digali mime, mumble and moan his way into his new ethnic identity, including an impromptu speech at a Bar Mitzvah ceremony, is hilarious. Not that the humour is an evasion of difficult themes. For instance, when Nasir causes uproar in an office of his local town hall, upon discovering his identity, and is escorted out of the building by a security guard, he laments: ‘You find you’re Jewish and then suddenly a man in uniform is leading you away!’ It’s a one-off joke, perhaps, but it reminds us that, while we all know that fanatical believers in God have always caused trouble, it is what we might call secular religion that lies behind most of the atrocities of the last century: Nazism, Stalinism, Maoism. That’s a sombre note with which to end a review of a very funny film; but since when was comedy not a serious business?