Friday, November 5, 2010

Chris Morris' FOUR LIONS: comic, cosmic Jihad that's funny, piercing and sad

"How did they do it?" may fall from your lips, or at least invade your thoughts, after viewing FOUR LIONS, the new and very funny tragi-comedy from Chris Morris, director and co-writer, with Jesse Armstrong, Sam Bain and Simon Blackwell. Together with their cast of four splendid lead actors and a host of fine supporting people, this group has taken about as black and tricky a subject as exists in the world today and spun it into comic gold -- without ever losing sight (sound or feel) of its underlying tragedy. After a first viewing (I'll have to see this one again) I'm amazed, and I suspect you will be, too.

Can a movie manage to make repeated and resounding fun of fundamentalism and suicidal Jihad while somehow honoring the deep religious feelings that must be engen-dered in participants engaging in this kind of terrorism? Evidently so, for this is the very weird and perhaps dangerous combination that Morris (shown at right) and crew have concocted. One fears for the lives of the filmmakers. Yet the movie opened in Britain much earlier this year and, as these guys are still with us, perhaps Islam looks kindly on their venture. Islam ought to, for the result is more than any religion (whose followers engage in this kind of terror against civilians) deserves. Well, it's a conundrum, I tell you.

The movie opens (above) with a scene all too familiar of late. But it's a rehearsal, and it's not going well.  The humor may take awhile to kick in, given the ugliness of the would-be situation. But because so much of the humor generates from the characters of the four participants, the more we grow to understand them, the funnier the movie gets. And it gets very funny.

Four Lions' fullest character -- the one with whom most audiences will identify -- is family man Omar (played by Riz Ahmed, above and at bottom, whom you may remember from Sally Potter's Rage and/or Neil Marshall's Centurion). The scenes of family life shown here -- Omar's wife arguing with a male relative about a "woman's place," how both wife and son appear to actually encourage Omar in his crazy endeavor, and especially the hilarious use of The Lion King conflated with Jihad -- are as funny as they are cogent and remarkable.  In fact, Morris and his crew come at fundamentalism from several standpoints so that we see a non-violent fundamentalist (who would keep women under thumb) along with a suicidal Jihadist (who is happy to have a "liberated" wife). The ironies comes thick and fast in this film.

The need to "fit in," to find one's place, is found in two other quite disparate characterizations: one from Arsher Ali (above), as the bumbling Hassan (all these guys are bumblers, but they each bumble in differing ways), whose "Jihad rap" number in the midst of a town council meeting is classic cinema. Nigel Lindsay (below), as Barry, on the other hand, is the one Brit in the bunch possessing no middle-eastern heritage. His need for inclusion comes from somewhere else, though it is every bit as urgent -- and believable.

The fourth lion, Adeel Akhtar as Faisal (below), seems the oldest of the men and perhaps the saddest (they're all sad) and is the one we know the least about, but he gets the single funniest moment -- with the crow pictured above and on the poster at top. Here's another scene destined to join those in the annals of great comedy.

As funny as it is, what gives the movie its poignancy, in fact its greatness, is the depth accorded its characters, despite/because of their very foolishness and misguided bungling. Morris and his writers insist on not just offering up the crazy humor but the beliefs and desires of the men that underly the situation. By the whopper of the finale, humor and hurt coalesce into something cinema has not previously given us. Bravo, guys -- every last one of you -- and Preeya Kalidas, who does such a good job playing Omar's wife, and Julia Davis as the Lions' somewhat "out-of-touch" neighbor.

Four Lions, from Drafthouse Films, opens today, November 5, in New York City at the Angelika Film Center. Click here, then look down the right hand side of the screen to find, in alphabetical order, the 21 cities where the film is (or soon will be) playing -- along with specific dates and theaters.

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