Operating on a low budget and a high concept — blustery London Muslim discovers he was born a Jew — “The Infidel” makes great use of its two major assets: the comedic talents of the rotund Omid Djalili and the inherent absurdity of hysterical hatreds. Script-driven Britcom dances around the edge of political correctness, but the Josh Appignanesi-directed laffer has already been picked up by fledgling Tribeca Film for limited theatrical and day-and-date release on VOD concurrent with its Tribeca Film Festival premiere, giving this pungent farce the exposure it deserves.
When lapsed Muslim Mahmud Nasir (Djalili) finds out his recently deceased mother was Jewish, it’s not the only thing to rock his world. His son Rashid (Amit Shah) is hoping to marry the beautiful Uzma (Soraya Radford), but needs the approval of her father, flaming fundamentalist Islamic preacher Arshad Al-Masri (Igal Naor), who is polarizing London’s ethnic communities. Just when Mahmud is supposed to be proving himself a good Muslim for the benefit of his son’s matrimonial happiness, he finds out he was born with the less-than-melodious handle of Solly Shimshillewitz.
“The Infidel” is a sitcom writ large, so it’s fitting that Mahmud should discover his own Jewish savior in the person of an expat cabbie named Lenny Goldberg (the wonderful Richard Schiff), formerly a neighbor of Mahmud’s mother. They’re antagonists at first, but not for long: Embarrassed and confused by his newly discovered Hebrew lineage, Mahmud eventually spills all to the now-sympathetic Lenny, who tells Mahmud there used to be an Izzy Shimshillewitz living down the street (as unlikely as that may be), and offers help as Mahmud investigates further.
The repartee between Mahmud and Lenny reps the heart of the movie, and it’s very funny, even metaphysical; Mahmud, like most of the world, is caught on the horns of a religious dilemma. En route to a bar mitzvah, he meets Rashid, who’s attending an anti-Israel rally featuring a speech by his future father-in-law. But when Mahmud takes off his kefi and reveals the yarmulke Lenny’s given him, he goes into a blind panic and sets the thing on fire — to the delight of all the fanatical Jew haters around him. It’s all captured on local news and will come back to haunt Mahmud.
“The Infidel” takes some all-too-predictable detours into moralizing and sentimentality, but remains consistently sharp as long as it sticks to its acerbic tone and saucy comic sensibility. Sight gags abound, as do some hilarious satellite characters: Mahmud and his wife (a terrific Archie Panjabi) have a 6-year-old daughter (Leah Fatanbia), who marches around urging that Muslims unleash jihad on the infidels. Where does the kid get this stuff? Apparently from television, where one can regularly find Arshad spouting hatred. In a movie cast in various amusing shades of gray, Arshad is the one true villain.
Production values are modest; shooting is straight-on, and the movie generally is a vehicle for the words, which consistently entertain.