The Reluctant Fundamentalist


Which one will blink first?

Which one will blink first?

(2012) Drama (IFC) Riz Ahmed, Kate Hudson, Kiefer Sutherland, Liev Schreiber, Om Puri, Shabana Azmi, Martin Donovan, Nelsan Ellis, Haluk Bilginer, Meesha Shafi, Imaad Shah, Chris Smith, Ashwath Batt, Sarah Quinn, Chandrachur Singh, Adil Hussain, Ali Sethi, Deepti Datt, Gary Richardson, Victor Slezak, Ashlyn Henson, Cait Johnson. Directed by Mira Nair

What creates a terrorist? How does one go from being a devout member of one’s religion to a wild-eyed fanatic willing to kill – and die – for his/her faith?

After an American professor (Richardson) is kidnapped after attending a movie in Lahore, Pakistan, a colleague of his at the university, Changez Khan (Ahmed) is interviewed by journalist Bobby Lincoln (Schreiber). Changez has fallen under suspicion of being connected to a terrorist group mainly based on his anti-American rhetoric and firebrand speeches in the classroom  He’d also met with a notorious terrorist cell leader

However,  Changez had started out as a rapidly pro-American, a big believer in the American dream. Born in Lahore to a poet (Puri) and a housewife (Azmi) who had been well-to-do at one time but who had blown through the money they had as poetry even in Pakistan isn’t a job that brings in high earnings. Changez gets a scholarship to Princeton and when he graduates is pegged by Jim Cross (Sutherland) to be a gifted evaluator of business worth which makes him a valuable commodity with a bright future at Underwood Samson who evaluate the value of companies and come up with ways to increase that value. It’s a pretty lucrative field and Changez looks to be on the fast track to success.

As he banters with his friends Wainwright (Ellis), Clea (Quinn) and Rizzo (Smith), Changez falls for Erica (Hudson), the artistic niece of  Underwood Samson’s CEO. It isn’t long before they move in together, although Erica has a deep melancholy – her previous boyfriend had died in a car accident and she’s still grieving. Even though Changez moves slowly and gives her as much leeway as she wants and she clearly has feelings for him, she still feels like she’s cheating on her dead lover.

Everything changes though when the Twin Towers come down on 9/11. Changez is in Manila on business when it happens and when he finally comes home, he is stripped and forced to undergo a humiliating body cavity search. People begin to view Changez with suspicion, particularly now that he’s sporting a beard to reconnect with his Pakistani roots. He is growing more and more distant from his family which hits him hard when he goes home for his sister Bina’s (Shafi) wedding.

The final straw is when he goes to Turkey to evaluate a publishing company that one of Underhill Samson’s clients had just purchased. Even though the company had done much to promulgate Turkish culture and that of their neighbors (Changez’ dad had even had a book of his poems published there) the numbers point to liquidating the assets and shuttering the doors. Changez has an epiphany and refuses to do it. He quits his job and returns home, finding a job teaching.

So now things in Lahore are a powderkeg as American CIA and local police are detaining and arresting students at the University and conducting random searches. Even Changez’ family has received a visit of the state police simply because of their association with him. It won’t take much for this powderkeg to blow. So how involved is Changez with the kidnapping. Had his treatment in America paved the way for his conversion into jihadism? Or is he simply an innocent victim of circumstance?

Nair, who has on her resume some impressive efforts (not the least of which are Monsoon Wedding and The Namesake) has another one to add to that list. Based on a novel by Mohsin Hamid that is largely a monologue by Changez, she utilizes some brilliant cinematography and a terrific cast to explore the complex themes of the book.

Changez is largely a cypher. On the surface he seems a gentle, kind soul who adheres to non-violence but in practice he spent his Wall Street career practicing a kind of economic violence. While he eventually turns away from it, there is that sense that he is blaming America for allowing him to willingly participate in an admittedly immoral career. He made his choices but took no responsibility for them even after he quit. In that sense, Changez is unlikable and I personally find it a bit refreshing to have a character who turns a blind eye towards his own imperfections – most of us are like that.

Ahmed, a Pakistani-born British rapper and actor has a great deal of charisma and reminds me of a young Oded Fehr in looks and manner. He holds his own in his scenes with Schreiber who is an excellent actor so it’s no small feat. Their scenes are the most compelling in the film and it is their confrontation that provides the essence of the film.

Sutherland and Puri do great work in supporting roles. Hudson, who is also capable of strong roles, kind of gets a little lost here – it could be that she plays her character, who is weak and clings to her grief like Linus and his security blanket, too well. There are never the kind of sparks between her and Ahmed that I would have liked to have seen although that possibly was deliberate on Nair’s part. However, a good deal of time is spent on the relationship between Erica and Changez and quite frankly that is the weakest part of the story.

The film’s climax is powerful as we are left to ponder whether we are creating our own enemies out of our own arrogance and insensitivity, which I think is clearly the case. If so, then we come by that hatred honestly but we refuse to acknowledge it, one more reason for people in other countries to despise us. It isn’t until the final five minutes of the film that we discover where Changez’ sympathies lie and whether or not he is involved in the kidnapping. In a way it’s almost a moot point; ultimately this isn’t about who Changez is. It’s about who we are.

REASONS TO GO: Thought-provoking and balanced. Fine performances by Ahmed, Sutherland, Schreiber, Puri and Ellis.

REASONS TO STAY: The film is far more powerful when focusing on Changez’ conflicting feelings about America than on his relationship with Erica.

FAMILY VALUES:  There is a fair amount of swearing, some violence and a bit of sexuality.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Hudson was initially unable to do the film because she was pregnant at the time that shooting was scheduled to take place. When shooting was delayed until after she had her baby, Hudson was able to take the role.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/1/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 55% positive reviews. Metacritic: 54/100

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Syriana

FINAL RATING: 7.5/10

NEXT: Rush (2013)

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Agora


Agora

Rachel Weisz is looking forward to her first toga party.

(2009) Historical Drama (Newmarket) Rachel Weisz, Max Minghella, Oscar Isaac, Ashraf Barhom, Michael Lonsdale, Rupert Evans, Homayoun Ershadi, Sammy Samir, Richard Durden, Omar Mostafa, Manuel Cauchi, Oshri Cohen. Directed by Alejandro Amenabar

 

As the saying goes, a little knowledge is a dangerous thing. It is particularly dangerous when knowledge is at odds with religious fundamentalism. When a society becomes dominated by religion, knowledge becomes heresy and those who seek knowledge become heretics. That’s a perilous place to be.

Hypatia (Weisz) is a noblewoman of Alexandria in the 4th century. The daughter of Theon (Lonsdale), curator of the great library of Alexandria, she teaches at the Platonist school at the Library; while she also teaches philosophy and mathematics, it is astronomy and physics that are her passions. Her pupils Orestes (Isaac) and Synesius (Evans) would dearly like to become her passion, as would her slave Davus (Minghella). Hypatia rejects them all, preferring to channel her energies into discovery rather than into pleasing a man.

While Hypatia is a pagan (as the leaders of Alexandria were at the time), the growing cult of Christianity is becoming more and more aggressive. When pagan statues are vandalized, a group of pagans (including Theon and Orestes) go to teach the Christians a lesson in savagery. Unfortunately for them, they discover that there are far more Christians than they at first thought and whipped up into a frenzy by the street preacher Ammonius (Barhom), the Christian thugs (known as the parabolani) lay siege to the library itself. Saving the precious scrolls from destruction is just the beginning of the ordeal for Hypatia as the balance of power shifts and the search for enlightenment comes into direct conflict with dogmatic faith.

The sweep and scope of Agora matches any historical epic, from Quo Vadis to Ben-Hur and even up to the CGI-infused epics of today like Troy. Agora benefits from marvelous set design, mostly done in Malta where Gladiator was filmed and utilizing many of those who built the sets for that movie. However, this isn’t just war and blood, guts and glory – there are ideas here, a debate of faith vs. knowledge (and Amenabar sides firmly with the latter).

There are those who criticized the movie as being anti-Christian but I didn’t see it. I think Amenabar’s stance is, if anything, anti-intolerance. He also has history on his side – the library was destroyed by a Christian mob, and Christians did murder certain historical figures in the story as depicted. That’s not being anti-Christian, it’s being pro-fact.

Weisz brings dignity and elegance to the part of Hypatia. The historical Hypatia we know mostly through the descriptions of historians, most of which are admiring of her intellect. For the purposes of the movie, a lot of blanks had to be filled in and Weisz does so in a way that makes sense with what we know of the historical Hypatia, making her human and charming, but also devoted to the search for knowledge which would inevitably bring her into conflict with those who felt that knowledge should be best left alone.

The movie wound up not doing well here in the States, struggling to get distribution and then not getting a very wide release. While it was the highest-grossing movie in Spain when it was released there (and won several Spanish Oscar-equivalents), the high production costs made it very difficult for this movie to become popular and subsequently made it disregarded in some quarters. That’s a shame too – this is a movie with something to say and a passion for its subject. Besides, a historical epic done this well is exceedingly rare and as such should be treasured when one comes out. It might be too cerebral for some but personally I think a little knowledge is a good thing. Does that make me dangerous?

WHY RENT THIS: A sword and sandals film that puts ideas at the forefront. Weisz plays Hypatia with dignity and restraint..   

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Religious sorts may find the movie’s condemnation of fanaticism and fundamentalism disturbing.

FAMILY VALUES: There is some violence and implied nudity.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Amenabar wrote the movie with Weisz in mind to play the lead.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: As part of the “making of” featurette there is a segment on the historical background of the movie which is fascinating.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $39.0M on a $70M production budget; sadly, the movie was a box office failure.

FINAL RATING: 7.5/10

TOMORROW: Another Year

Holy Wars


Holy Wars

Khalid Kelly tries on his best Jihadist pose.

(2010) Documentary (Smuggler) Aaron Taylor, Khalid Kelly, Sheikh Omar Bakri Muhammad Fostok, Sam Harris, M. Shalid Alam, Dianne Kannady, Stephen Marshall, Don Taylor. Directed by Stephen Marshall

 

Extremism in any form is something to be avoided. When it is encountered in such hot button topics as religion, it can lead to bloodshed.

Aaron Taylor is an evangelical minister in Missouri who travels around the world to predominantly Muslim countries to convert the natives to Christianity. He believes in the rapture and the apocalypse and that both are right around the corner. His fundamentalism sees all non-Christians as evil and Muslims in particular as the enemy of America and thus of Christianity.

Khalid Kelly is a Muslim of Irish descent living in Britain. He is an Islamic fundamentalist, naming his son Osama after the Al Qaeda mastermind. He is vehemently anti-West, protesting the invasion of Iraq by Tony Blair, and touts the harsher aspects of Shariah law as means of controlling crime and dissent. His own personal transformation from a belligerent drunk to a sober family man he accredits to his conversion to Islam.

The two are as different as two people can be and yet they are flip sides of the same coin. When director Marshall brings the two together, something unexpected happens. While Kelly is articulate and clearly wins the debate, thereafter he slides further into fundamentalism and eventually leaves the UK for Pakistan, which turns out to be not radical enough for him and he is deeply disturbed to discover that his views are liable to get him arrested.

On the other hand Taylor takes a good hard look at his own views and finds that Kelly had made some valid points. He researches Khalid’s complaints and discovers that his own outlook needs some mending. He begins to preach understanding and reaching out, much to the puzzlement of his family who remain committed to their fundamentalism. The change of heart is unexpected and pleasantly surprising.

Taylor is far less charismatic than Kelly and yet he is the one who seems to have more understanding and a greater global view than his counterpart. Marshall wisely sits back and lets the two men tell their own stories. We do see their families and wives but only in a limited sense; for the most part, this is mano a mano, the two trying to espouse their faith and justify their narrow interpretations of them.

I’m not the most religious person on Earth, but I do consider myself to be spiritual. I am not a big fan of organized religion and to a lot of extent this movie tends to confirm my own objections to religion in general. However, it is comforting to know that someone seemingly so entrenched in such a narrow bandwidth can be inspired to open their eyes and see things from a different perspective. Maybe there’s some hope after all.

REASONS TO GO: Surprising look at fundamentalism and its effects on politics. Kelly is engaging and articulate while Taylor’s faith and outlook are impressive.

REASONS TO STAY: Religion and politics are two difficult items to discuss and they are both the focus here.

FAMILY VALUES: Some foul language and difficult subject matter.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Marshall followed Taylor and Kelly for a total of three years.

HOME OR THEATER: While it will be difficult to find in a theater, it is worth seeking out at your local film festival if possible.

FINAL RATING: 8/10

TOMORROW: This Narrow Space