People are always surprised at how many similarities there are between the Hebrew and Arabic languages: the word for peace in the first is shalom and in the second salaam. As both Jews and Arabs are originally from the same part of the world and share a common Semitic heritage it really shouldn’t be too much of a surprise, but because of the current political strife between the two over a few thousand square miles of what is basically desert land, it’s something most of us tend to forget. We also tend to overlook that, historically speaking, relations between Muslims and Jews were often far better than those either ever had with Christians.
Up until the 20th century Jewish people living under Arab rule fared much better than they did under Christian rule. In the Middle Ages, when Jews were being persecuted all across Europe as scapegoats for the plague and other social evils, they were living relatively comfortable lives in Moorish occupied Spain. In the Cordoba region a Jew even served as advisor to the Caliph, something that would never have occurred under a Christian ruler of the time. It’s only been since after World War I and the British occupation of what is now Israel that the two people were thrown into direct conflict. Instead of trying to figure out a peaceful means of creating space for the two to live in the same area after their withdrawal – like maybe making a common country with shared rule – the British arbitrarily drew a line splitting the country and Jerusalem in half. Relations between the two people have been pretty rocky ever since.
While most people might be hard pressed to find anything humorous about the division between these two groups, thankfully there are some who don’t think there’s any cow too sacred to be tipped on its ass and laughed at. The Infidel, being released on DVD October 26 by New Video and Tribeca Films, is bound to offend or piss off everybody who takes themselves far too seriously on both sides of the great Semite divide. The film stars Omid Djalili (who played opposite Heath Ledger in the movie Casanova as his servant) and Richard Schiff (best known for his work in the TV show The West Wing) as a Muslim and a Jew who are thrown together under highly outrageous circumstances. The movie takes great joy in rubbing our faces in the bigotry and idiocy of the extremists in both religious groups, yet also manages to find the common ground between the two so often overlooked and forgotten.
Mahmud Nasir (Djalili), a second generation Pakistani Brit, refers to himself as a relaxed Muslim, meaning he would much rather take in a football match than attend mosque. Happily married with two children, the only cloud on his horizon is his son’s future father-in-law. It seems the fiancee’s widowed mother has re-married a radical Muslim cleric she met in Pakistan, and he will only allow his new daughter to marry “proper” Muslims. In order to make his son happy, Nasir agrees to lay off the beer for a while and to even learn a few lines from the Koran. However, plans hit a really nasty speed bump when he’s packing up his late mother’s belongings and discovers papers showing he was adopted. Following the paper trail back in time, to his horror he finds out that while he has been raised Muslim, his birth parents were Jewish. Needless to say, this results in a wee bit of an identity crisis.
At first he tries to cope by becoming more anit-Zionist and anti-Semitic than thou, but when that doesn’t help, he seeks out the advice of Lenny (Schiff), an expatriate American Jew who lives across the street from his late mother’s house. Together they trace down his birth father to a Jewish old age home where Nasir is refused admission to his father’s room by a rabbi. The rabbi is worried that the shock of finding out he has such an obviously Muslim son could kill the older man, and tells Nasir he can only see his father if he can be more Jewish. Turning to Lenny for help he begins a crash course in what it means to be a Jew, including learning how to shrug and say “oy vey,” dancing like Topel in Fiddler On The Roof, and attending a bar mitzvah. (One of the movie’s best lines occurs at the bar mitzvah when Schiff defines a Buddhist Jew as being a person who rejects materialism but keeps the receipts.)
While the movie follows the expected pattern — Naisr’s Jewishness being exposed at the worst possible moment; his alienation from family and friends; his son’s wedding being called off; the denouncing of the radical cleric; and a happy reconciliation — the way it travels that road is what makes it so much fun to watch. Schiff and Djalili are an absolute joy to watch working together as they verge back and forth between trading insults and learning to find common ground with each other. The contrast between Djalili’s over-the-top bombast and Schiff’s sarcastic wit makes for some of the film’s funniest moments. There are times the movie will make most people cringe as it holds up a large mirror reflecting the bigotry each group has towards the other through some of the nastiest Jewish and Arab jokes ever told.
That’s when the movie is its most effective as it forces the audience to confront the reality of racial jokes and answers that old question of “Where’s the harm in telling it?” The harm is the underlying hatred that is the basis for those types of jokes in the first place. When Djalili joins in a round of Jewish insults at work as he’s still trying to come to grips with his own identity he transforms from a basically likable guy into both a figure of ridicule and something genuinely ugly. Change the accents and the skin colour and it could be a group of guys in North America hanging around the water cooler making jokes about rag-heads and swearing about the fucking Muslims.
The divisions between Jews and Muslims aren’t going to be closed without a willingness on both parts to step down from their positions of self-righteous indignation. The great thing about The Infidel is how it holds both sides up to ridicule while also showing why each also has every reason to be nervous of elements on the other side. It does the truly remarkable job respecting each group’s beliefs while pointing out how ridiculous they are being. It may not bring instant peace to the Middle East, but it might just give some people a different perspective on the situation.
The Infidel on DVD has many of the bonus features we’ve come to expect these days including commentaries from the two lead actors, director Josh Appignanesi, and screenwriter David Baddiel; interviews with the actors and director; a gag reel; and bonus jokes. As usual it will sound and look best on newer home theatre equipment as it’s presented in wide screen format with Dolby Digital 5.1 surround sound.