Film Review – The Reluctant Fundamentalist
Among the many noteworthy filmmakers to rise out of the late ’80s/early ’90s, one of the more underappreciated is Mira Nair (Mississippi Masala, Monsoon Wedding). While she never achieved the fame of some of her contemporaries like Quentin Tarantino or Richard Linklater, she has consistently released creative films throughout her career. Her latest project, The Reluctant Fundamentalist, continues her trend of pushing boundaries and making thought-provoking projects.
The story follows journalist Bobby Lincoln (Liev Schreiber) as he interviews a Pakistani fundamentalist teacher, Changez Khan (Riz Ahmed), about the abduction of an American teacher, with which he is suspected of being involved. Through the turmoil around them, Changez recounts his story of going to America and returning to Pakistan as a fundamentalist.
There are a multitude of reasons to like this movie, and you must start at the top with director Mira Nair. She takes the simple premise of a conversation between two people and adds layers as she weaves between the present conflict and the origins of the situation many years earlier. Through a fantastic job of pacing, the film exists somewhere between being a drama and a thriller. What initially feels like one man’s drama of self-discovery becomes increasingly more intense as the stakes continue to rise, with police and protesters combating over the tactics used in the search for the American teacher.
One of the best parts of the movie is the cat-and-mouse game between Schreiber and Ahmed, where both discuss the situation but are much more knowledgeable about it than they let on to each other. The film is built on the preconception that an Islamic fundamentalist is involved in the kidnapping, and it tests preconceived judgment through the telling of the story. There is no simple hero/villain dynamic, as both characters end up being a lot more complex than their initial personas lead you to believe. Additionally, the production value is quite impressive; for a film with a modest $15 million budget, it feels like it easily cost three times that much.
While Nair puts all the right dominos in order, it is the incredible acting that really drives the show. Despite there being a lot of talented actors in the movie (Liev Schreiber, Kate Hudson, Kiefer Sutherland), the clear star is Ahmed, who commands the screen. I have largely been unfamiliar with his prior work, but he is reminiscent of Gael García Bernal—someone who tells as much of their story through their physical acting as through the words. Ahmed has to succeed in a very tight window—being both sympathetic and potentially a terrorist. Due to the solid casting and fundamentalist storyline, one of the natural comparisons for the film is Homeland, which does an excellent job of telling both sides of the story. But this film isn’t so much about the potential for a terrorist attack as it is about how we arrive at these situations.
The best part of the story is the exploration of fundamentalism. The film isn’t simply a condemnation of Islamic fundamentalism, but rather a look at how many small decisions ultimately lead us to our final conclusion. There is basic Newtonian physics to the evolution of the story: for every action, there is an opposite and equal reaction. One of the big plot elements is the impact of 9/11 on a Pakistani man living in NYC. The film is bound to ignite some political debates over the fairness of this portion of the story, but reflecting upon that time, a lot of the stories about and after 9/11 were focused on how the American people united in the wake of tragedy, and we often forget about the xenophobic fear that occurred at the same time and that still exists. The film doesn’t try to condemn either side, but rather shows how events can be interpreted from many different perspectives, and that truth is subjective. It was especially encouraging to see the film’s climax eschew a classic “Hollywood” ending for something that feels more earnest and in line with the plot leading up to it. It doesn’t try to resolve the problem of fundamentalism or declare a victor, but makes the viewer rethink what they perceive as fundamentalism.
The sad reality is that this film probably will be a bump on the release calendar that will quickly be forgotten. It really is a shame that high quality, unique filmmaking like this is either overlooked or ignored because of its content. Mira Nair has once again showcased her deft technique, and while she might not be getting $200 million dollar projects like some of her peers, she continues to outshine them with her final products. The Reluctant Fundamentalist is a real pleasure to watch for the adventurous and open-minded.
Final Grade: A-