Netflix Instant Files: The Infidel

dancing

What do you do when it seems like your identity has been taken from you all in one moment?  Do you ignore what you’ve discovered, or try to learn more about your new background?  Do you hide who you are, or do you share your struggles with those closest to you?  Can your identity ever really be taken away?

That’s the dilemma Mahmud Nasir faces in 2010 British comedy The Infidel, available on Netflix Instant.  After his mother passes away, he goes through her things only to discover his adoption certificate.  He never knew he was adopted, but the real shock is that his birth parents were Jewish.

normal guyBeing Muslim isn’t Mahmud’s entire identity.  At least, that’s not what he thinks.  Although he argues to his son that deep down inside he’s a true Muslim, he’s not that devout.  He hates fundamentalism in any form, and his biggest obsession is 80s pop star Gary Page.  Mahmud doesn’t feel that he judges people for their backgrounds, religious or otherwise; that’s the type of prejudice he faces every day, and he certainly doesn’t think he’d treat others in that way.

Finding out that he’s Jewish by birth throws Mahmud into a chaos he couldn’t have predicted.  Even if he’s not that observant, being Muslim is as much, if not more, a part of his cultural identity as his religious.  He doesn’t know how he can reconcile the cultural identity with which he was raised with the one into which he was born.

How he decides to handle it is where the film gets most of its comedy, which really is quite funny, and is also its most touching aspect.  The begrudging friendship between Mahmud and his “Jewish teacher” Lenny Goldberg is the film’s highlight.

Mahmud and Lenny start off as enemies.  They’re two jerks who keep crossing each other’s paths, and neither can control his temper around the other.  But when Mahmud needs to learn more about what it means to be Jewish, he heads over to Lenny’s with his tail between his legs.  The two rub each other the wrong way, and while their bickering melts from mean spirited to almost affectionate as their friendship develops, they never stop pushing each other’s buttons.  The film even ends on a scene of the two of them (playfully) at each other’s throats once again.

lennyIt’s not really clear why Lenny takes Mahmud under his wing.  After all, Mahmud’s never given Lenny a reason to be nice to him, though that’s true in the reverse as well.  At first it feels like he’s going to “tutor” Mahmud as a way to mess with him, but it develops into something more genuine than that.  Perhaps he feels pity, or perhaps he’s just lonely, or perhaps it’s a combination of the two.  One of the things I like about the film is how simultaneously mature and immature their relationship is.  They never stop saying or doing things that they know will wind up the other, but they’re there for each other when they need it, and they don’t let it permanently fracture their friendship.

I wish the rest of the characters and relationships in the film were as well developed.  There are some touching scenes between Mahmud and his son, but his relationship with the rest of his family feels perfunctory.  There’s a running gag  where his wife thinks he’s gay — fueled by the local imam, to whom Mahmud first went with his identity crisis, though he never specified what was wrong and so the imam made a mistaken assumption — that’s just unfunny, especially because it’s treated as a punchline.  Most of the couple’s interactions in the film have to do with that.  I can understand why Mahmud would feel more comfortable going to a stranger with his world-shaking troubles than his family, but after a while his subterfuge just gets ridiculous.

the nasir familyThe whole thing falls into the tired “schlubby husband does silly things while his hot wife rolls her eyes and eventually gets fed up” territory.  There’s another running gag that’s much better: an unnamed member of the family wears a niqab, while the rest of the family predominantly wear Western dress.  But the woman in the niqab, though we hear very little of her dialog, is just as dynamic and interactive of a character as the rest (well, as dynamic as any of the characters who aren’t Mahmud or Lenny get to be).  She’s not a meek or submissive woman: she engages and jokes around with the family, dances at weddings, and overall lives a full and normal life.  Her entire character underscores one of the main points of the film: she’s just like any one of us, and we can’t judge her by her appearance.

Although I wish more (especially female) characters were better developed, the joke with the woman in the niqab does work best in the fleeting glimpses of it we’re given.  Mahmud and Lenny’s interactions are the main focus of the plot, even if some of those interactions might at first seem a bit too silly.  If we take much of Lenny’s advice, being Jewish boils down to dancing around like Fiddler on the Roof and eating matzo soup.

lenny and mahmudThat’s partially just Lenny messing with Mahmud.  He might also be making a point: it’s not that easy to teach someone what it means to be Jewish, or really to be of any cultural/religious background.  Mahmud wants a crash course, and that’s impossible and a bit short-sighted.  Especially because Mahmud doesn’t want to give up his Muslim identity, he just wants to learn more about his Jewish background so he can interact with his ailing birth father.

Mahmud’s putting too much stock in appearances, something that’s intentionally ironic given that, by his own admission, he can’t even wear a backpack on the subway without scaring all the other passengers out of the carriage.  That’s human nature: inconsistent and often blind to the slights we give others while complaining about the same ones others give us.

I’m not sure exactly what The Infidel is saying about religious and cultural identity, in part because it’s not something to which I can personally relate.  I think the film is saying that it means what you want it to, particularly in a society where people from all backgrounds live together, and many people belong to multiple cultural and religious groups.  Mahmud’s Muslim identity doesn’t have to be affected by the discovery of his heritage, but it also shouldn’t bar him from learning more about the background of his birth.

The Infidel is funny, it’s touching; it’s a bit silly, but it’s also rather sweet.  It’s definitely a movie you should add to your Netflix queue.

 

You can also find The Infidel on Amazon.