In “Infidel,” Jim Caviezel plays Christian blogger Doug Rawlins, who travels to Cairo to participate in a televised conference on religion. The Muslim host seeks commonalities between the two faiths. “We love Jesus Christ,” the man says, after which Doug pauses for a moment, weighing his words, before rejecting the figurative olive branch. “He is God,” Doug responds. “And He wants to be your God.” The audience (within the film, but surely not the one watching it) is stunned at Doug’s audacity. Less surprising to all parties, Doug is kidnapped from his hotel room by angry Muslims a few hours later.
The latest film from controversial writer-director Cyrus Nowrasteh (“The Path to 9/11”), “Infidel” actually opens with a forward glimpse of Doug facing a firing squad on a Tehran rooftop, so we know from the jump that his Cairo visit didn’t go well. On the surface, “Infidel” appears to be a straightforward Middle East-set thriller — the kind that reaffirms Americans’ xenophobic impulses, wherein Muslims fulfill the worst stereotypes and traditional music played over views of dusty foreign cities is meant to put viewers on edge. It features several decent fight scenes, explosions and chases (one involving a helicopter), and some impressive locations work as Jordan doubles for several countries. Beneath this veneer of glossy excitement, however, lies a rather straightforward Christian parable about standing up for what you believe in.
Coming from the mouth of the actor who played Jesus in Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ,” Doug’s “He is God” declaration is meant to represent conviction, not carelessness. But his wife, Liz (Claudia Karvan), recognizes the risk when her husband turns his Cairo invitation into an opportunity to proselytize. A strong character in her own right, Liz works for the State Department, which puts her in a decent position to help rescue Doug from his captors when the time comes. Also interesting: She doesn’t share his faith, having abandoned Christianity after a car accident claimed their unborn child — an unnecessarily traumatic flashback inserted early in a film struggling to look like more than a straight-to-video faith-based thriller.
The conservative answer to such Middle East-set films as “Rendition” and “Syriana,” “Infidel” is one of the widest exclusive-to-theaters U.S. releases since the pandemic closed most cinemas, reportedly opening on 2,400 screens in 1,724 locations. Originally intended to open on 9/11, the film takes a tough look at the dimension of both Christianity and Islam reluctant to co-exist with the other, and speculates as to which is better suited to “win” this standoff. It’s biased, of course, and the movie’s attitude toward Muslims could be summarized as: We will respect your religion, to a point, but the moment you try to limit our freedom, all bets are off. Twice, we see Liz tear away her obligatory hijab while in Tehran, the first time to replace it with an American-style baseball cap and later, in an act of overt defiance, throwing the headscarf to the ground. Considering the demographic the film targets, one can easily imagine audiences at the megaplex doing the same with their face masks.
Nearly a decade ago, Nowrasteh made a powerful if heavy-handed drama titled “The Stoning of Soraya M.” in which he sensationalized a barbaric aspect of Iranian culture. But stoning seems a slap on the wrist compared with the threat Doug faces in front of this firing squad: Repent, accept Allah’s word, and he will be spared, promises Hezbollah kidnapper Ramzi (Hal Ozsan). It’s a prospect every bit as antithetical to Doug’s character as the pressure put on Jesuit priests to apostatize in Martin Scorsese’s “Silence.” Only, Scorsese was taking a serious-minded look at the consequences of Christian evangelism on unreceptive soil, whereas Doug’s dilemma serves to kick off a gung-ho action movie — one that brings Western justice to a heathen country, where Christians must practice undercover.
Still, “Infidel” isn’t as anti-Islam as it may sound. American-born Nowrasteh is of Iranian descent, teaming here with sensationalist producer Dinesh D’Souza (whose partisan documentaries aim to demonize such progressive heroes as Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton and Michael Moore) to make another film openly critical of Iran’s more absolutist views. As an American, the filmmaker uses his own freedom of speech to attack a country where no such protection exists. But Nowrasteh also proves himself to be sensitive to the biases and abuse Islamic people face in the United States, where freedom of religion still comes with caveats.
Early in the film, Doug and Liz attend a party hosted by their Iranian friend Javin (Aly Kassem), whose home is raided by police. Javin, we learn even before Doug does, is a radical potential terrorist who disowns his Western-minded daughter, and yet, the movie’s nuanced enough to draw a parallel between the way these two characters are treated in one another’s countries. “We’re not afraid to die. That’s why we’re going to win,” ready-for-martyrdom Ramzi (who’s the film’s most charismatic character) tells Doug, who responds, “I’m not afraid either.”
Such overt religious conviction is rare in film characters, but it’s treated here as admirably as James Bond refusing to spill state secrets under torture. After subjecting the stubborn American to a show trial, Doug’s captors transport him to section 209 of Tehran’s notorious Evin prison, where dissidents are housed. Although Caviezel’s character is meant to stand in for all Americans unjustly imprisoned by the Iranian government (shown here to be in league with extremists), it would be irresponsible to take the film’s “inspired by true events” claim too seriously. As action movie premises go, that doesn’t mean it’s not satisfying to watch Liz and several co-conspirators raid the facility in an attempt to liberate Doug and all those unjustly detained political prisoners. In this fantasy telling, at least, God is on his side.