Two new British film comedies dare to poke fun at religion

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The Independent Culture

How about this for a comedy film pitch? It's early Christmas Day morning and a young wannabe terrorist boards a plane with a hefty load of explosives stuffed down his underpants. He's waited a long time for this day and worked hard to get there, sweating for months in some lonely desert valley learning how to build bombs and make a half decent martyrdom video in HD format.

Cruising at 30,000ft he begins to think about the future – an eternity of virgins at his beck and call, his name memorised and praised by fellow jihadists worldwide, and a clear message sent to his arch-enemy on one of their holiest of days.

But somewhere along the way it all begins to unravel. For a start the bomb doesn't work, it merely fizzles at a rather uncomfortable temperature. Then the passengers jump on him as if they've all been inspired by the Die Hard movie flickering on their back-of-the-seat monitors. No-one prepared me for that in terrorism school, he thinks.

As our hapless bomber is wheeled off the plane on a stretcher it suddenly occurs to him that all he has to show for his endeavours is a badly charred pair of testicles.

Once you get over the initial horror of what Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab – forever now known as the "Christmas Day bomber" – planned to do, it's actually rather comic. All that planning, all that hatred and religious zeal. Yet what does he have to show for it? A lifetime behind bars and a bad case of balls brûlée.

Yet how many studios would see the comic potential? How many would even dare pick up the script?

On the stand-up comedy circuit religion – and especially religious zeal – is routinely lampooned and mocked. It's probably the second most popular subject after sex. But religious comedy on the silver screen is a bit of a desert. Perhaps it has something to do with the post-9/11 atmosphere that has made us want to understand the religiously motivated, rather than mock them. But in the past ten years the number of films with an irreverent take on the Almighty can probably be counted on two hands – and the vast majority of those would only dare take on Christianity.

Which is why it's so refreshing to see two films coming out within weeks of each other, both of which dare to approach religion with a comic touch. They will, of course, be castigated by the uncompromisingly religious, the usual suspects who believe that faith can never be a laughing matter and revel in demonstrating their beliefs through the medium of a violent punch up.

But a far greater proportion of the British public – the religious and non-religious alike – will doubtless chuckle, guffaw and gasp their way through a couple of hours of entertainment and not feel compelled to seek bloody retribution at the end.

The first film, David Baddiel's new offering, The Infidel, tells the story of a middle-aged Muslim family man who discovers he was actually born a Jew. To try and make sense of this sudden identity crisis, Mahmud, played by Iranian-born comic Omid Djalili, seeks out his neighbour, a drunken Jewish cabdriver called Lenny. The hilarity that ensues is largely based around the Muslim and Jewish communities' deep misunderstanding of each other and how two flawed but instantly loveable characters learn to respect each other and their faiths.

The second film follows an even more controversial line. Chris Morris is renowned for tackling touchy subjects – there aren't many film-makers out there who can produce a spoof Panorama-style documentary about paedophilia that has people clutching their sides, but Morris did just that during his now iconic Brass Eye series.

Which is why, if anyone was to make a comedy about terrorism, he's probably the right man for the job.

Four Lions is Morris's much anticipated movie debut and revolves around five wannabe jihadists from Sheffield who plan a series of co-ordinated suicide bombs in London. Their stupidity and haplessness is matched by the police, who are as incompetent and ill-informed as the people they are trying to catch.

It's a risky film to make, but when it debuted earlier in the year at the Sundance Film Festival, Four Lions received an overwhelmingly positive response from critics who were overjoyed to see a comedian brave enough to turn (metaphorically) to terrorism.

For Baddiel, a north London-born Jew who describes himself as "an atheist in my head but a Jew in my heart", there was never any question about whether religion could be a subject for comedy.

"Comedy will always find fertile ground in subjects that aren't properly talked about, like sex, or in things that people take very seriously, such as religion," he said. "Religion is a serious subject that has a lot of gravitas, which obviously makes it ripe for comic subversion."

But there was an issue over how to make that comedy both irreverent and respectful at the same time. To make sure his script was authentic, Baddiel brought in Uzma Hasan to produce the film and Muslim comedian Shazia Mirza to proof-read his writing. He even went to live with Hasan and Djalili's families to capture the dynamic within everyday British Muslim families.

The result, he says, is less an openly religious comedy such as, say, Life of Brian, and more a traditional culture- clash story along the lines of East is East or Fiddler on the Roof.

"It's sort of a buddy story between a Muslim and a Jew," he says. "Both the characters are at some level really quite racist towards each other and have a lot of misconceptions about what Muslims and Jews are like until they meet one – and then those things are broken down. That's a good area for comedy to explore. The movie will have lots of jokes that people are challenged by, but I treat religion fairly reverentially because it suited the narrative to do so. When Muhammad is mentioned, he is treated with reverence in the film just because that is what the Muslim characters would do."

Not that being religious bars anyone from turning to comedy, of course. The movie world may have been slow to catch up, but the stand-up circuit is filled with up-and-coming religious comedians, from Mirza in the UK to the enormously popular "Allah Made Me Funny" troupe from the US.

Yisrael Campbell is the Jewish world's answer to people like Mirza. Born a Catholic in Philadelphia, he converted to Orthodox Judaism and is known in Israel and the US as one of the best up-and-coming Jewish stand-ups. A typical opening line he uses as he stumbles on stage in his Orthodox garb goes along the lines of: "Is it warm in here or is it just that I'm the only one dressed for Poland in the 17th century?" His current off-Broadway show, Circumcise Me, is all about his journey towards Judaism and what he discovered when he got there.

Normally it's the uber-liberal Jews of Brooklyn and beyond who are most adept at poking fun at themselves, but here's a serious-looking Orthodox man with a beard and curls doing just as well. For Campbell, religion is more than just a fertile topic. He feels morally compelled to use comedy to cast a critical eye over religious hypocrites and zealots.

"You have to be respectful about how you do it, but religion can and must be used by comedians," he says. "I do a joke where I thank lesbians and gays for holding a pride march in Jerusalem because it was the only thing that managed to get the city's priests, rabbis and imams to unanimously agree on something. For me it's a way of shining a light on hypocrisy. Religions are extremely tough and durable concepts that have survived for thousands of years. They can and should be able to cope with the jokes."

But making a mockery of religion can be a dangerous thing – just ask Salman Rushdie and Kurt Westergaard (the Danish cartoonist whose drawings of the Prophet Muhammad led to riots and deaths across the Muslim diaspora).

"There's no point pretending that people who have tried to take on Islam haven't got into trouble," says Baddiel. "But I think that's a bit of a misreading of the history of all that because if you don't defame the Prophet, which is what all Muslims get very upset about, then you're not going to get into trouble."

Navid Akhtar, a film-maker who has specialised in serious documentaries on the nature of British Islam, including the film Young, Angry and Muslim, agrees.

"I think after July 7 and the Danish cartoons there were plenty of British Muslims who felt equally concerned as anyone else about the global reaction and the ridiculousness of it all," he says. "What we're getting as a result is a more sophisticated and developed Western Islam that gets comedy and understands that it's OK to poke a little fun at yourself."

When Morris saw Young, Angry and Muslim, a Dispatches investigation which delved inside the minds of the small number of young, British Muslims who sign up to the global Islamist cause, he took Akhtar out for dinner and told him he wanted to make a comedy.

British Muslims, says Akhtar, will enjoy Four Lions because they find the idea of suicide bombing as repellent as anyone else.

"The vast majority of British Muslims have no empathy with suicide bombers or the British police, which is something that Four Lions taps in to very successfully," he says. "They'll enjoy the film because they're stuck in the middle too. Ultimately they find the same things as hilarious as anyone else."

'The Infidel' opens on 9 April; 'Four Lions' opens on 7 May

They're very naughty boys: Five irreligious comedies

Life of Brian (1979)

The Holy Grail of religious comedies (below). Monty Python's satirical pummelling of Christianity through the medium of a biblical Jewish man who keeps getting mistaken for the Messiah had bishops foaming at the mouth.

Dogma (1999)

Matt Damon and Ben Affleck star as two angels cast out of heaven who find a way to get back in through a loophole in Catholic dogma. Heaven hires an abortion-clinic worker with failing faith to stop them. Director Kevin Smith was inundated with hate mail, but that doesn't seem to have put him off: he recently said he'd love to make a sequel.

Bruce Almighty (2003)

Jim Carrey is granted omnipotence by the Supreme Being (Morgan Freeman) after he claims God is doing a poor job. It's the kind of film Hollywood is happy to bankroll because the underlying message is about how we shouldn't blame God for all the bad things that happen.

The Invention of Lying (2009)

Didn't win over the critics, but Ricky Gervais's latest film has radical atheist undertones. In an alternative universe where humans find it impossible to lie, Gervais's character learns how to tell a fib and ultimately ends up mistakenly inventing religion.

South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut (1999)

Trey Parker and Matt Stone have taken a pop at virtually every religious and non-religious institution during the past 13 years. The film version had many religious overtones – including Satan and Saddam Hussein as gay lovers – and was a stinging critique of illiberalism within the American right.