Friday, 14 January 2011
THE BRILLIANT CHRIS MORRIS: FOUR LIONS
I laughed out loud. I laughed convulsively. I didn’t pee myself with laughter, but I came very close. Chris Morris’ jihadi comedy, “Four Lions“, is an absolute delight. If you're offended by the very concept of a terrorist cell as a laugh riot, you probably shouldn't see the film. Or maybe you should. The very existence of “Four Lions” is an act of audacity; the fact that it's also smart, humane, and frequently hilarious is nothing short of a miracle.
The protagonists operate under the fierce conviction that scheming to blow stuff up makes them radical, world-changing martyrs. Never mind that their grasp of reality is so pathetic that they believe the Jews invented sparkplugs to control global traffic, or that the best way to construct a top-secret bomb stash is to order the ingredients on Amazon.
Chris Morris is still the most incendiary figure working in the British entertainment industry. Even if you have not read reports of “Four Lions”’ premiere at Sundance and you have experienced his stuff before, it should come as no surprise that he is reliably fearless and brilliant. In this satirical black comedy about Islamic suicide bombers, he crucially targets his sacrilegious energy not at all at the tenets of Islam – what could be more tiresome or irrelevant? – but simply at the activity of suicide bombing itself.
It is not treated with the cowed, shocked respect habitually to be found in drama or on the news, but rather cheerful scorn. This is a film in which suicide bombers are not martyr-warriors, or powerful enemies to be hated and feared, but ridiculous bunglers. In the tradition of Chaplin sending up Hitler, Chris Morris depicts a movement of violent idiots. In this film, everyone is stupid. The suicide bombers are stupid; the police are stupid; even the clever suicide bomber with the gentle, loving marriage and adoring son is stupid: in fact he is the most culpably stupid of all. And this never looks like a cop-out or a moral equivalence of stupidity, but the comic enactment of a generally degraded and absurd culture of paranoid futility.
The character of Omar (Riz Ahmed), vaguely the most intelligent of the gang, wants to train as a "proper soldier" at a mujahideen camp in Pakistan. (In a nice sardonic touch, the antimaterialist Omar works by day as a mall security guard.) The belligerent Barry, a Caucasian convert to the cause, proposes bombing a mosque "to radicalise the moderates." Faisal (Adeel Akhtar) knows a thing or two about munitions, but rather than blow himself up, he plans to create an army of bomb-carrying crows. And the oafish Waj (Kayvan Novak) has no plan at all beyond railing at the infidels who prefer McDonald's to the halal bucket at Chicken Cottage.
The filmmaking style is an extended series of sketches rather than a tightly plotted story. Omar and Waj spend time at a Pakistani training camp, but are kicked out for general incompetence. Barry, while participating "undercover" in a panel on religious tolerance, recruits a young hothead, Hassan (Arsher Ali), who seems to have mistaken being a jihadi for being a gangster rapper.
After the catastrophic visit to Pakistan, where they succeed in disgracing themselves utterly, (at the end of the film we learn that they have blown up their hero, Osama bin Laden) Omar and Waj return gloomily to find that loose-cannon Barry has presumed to make recruitments without clearing it with anyone else. So to reassert his authority, Omar initiates his own plan: they will blow themselves up at the London Marathon, where their silly novelty costumes will conceal the explosives; no one will search them and it will all happen on live television.
At what point does violence for a cause (which, deluded though they may be, these guys believe they're fighting for) lose its meaning and become senseless murder? For those of us watching in the audience, of course, the answer is simple: terrorism is always senseless murder. But as we watch these guys engage in elaborate mental gymnastics to justify their deeds, we get a glimpse of ideological obfuscation in action. "Listen to your heart," Omar counsels Waj, trying to psych him up for a dangerous mission. "My heart says this is wrong," responds Waj, to which Omar, thinking fast, replies, "What does your head say?"
Far from the cynical, nihilist satire its premise might suggest, “Four Lions” reads, in the end, as a passionate and bleakly funny brief against extremism in all its forms. One of “Four Lions”' subplots involves Omar's deeply religious, law-abiding brother, who visits Omar's house to scold him for giving his wife too much freedom. When Omar laughs it off, the brother responds sternly, "Joking is a sign of weakness." That axiom could be the reverse motto of this brave, brutal, often bloody comedy: It is in its willingness to laugh at the unthinkable that the film finds its strength.
The most uncomfortable aspect of “Four Lions” is the excruciatingly happy, healthy, fulfilled home life of Omar. Just as we have become accustomed to the idea that only idiots or creeps want to kill people by blowing themselves up, Morris coolly presents us with a self-evidently nice, commonsensical guy who loves his family, and whose irritation with religious pedantry is supremely sympathetic. And yet Omar – the cool one, the smart one – wants what all the idiots want. He is essentially no different from them and his wife never questions it, or tries to talk him out of it; there is no serious discussion of justification, of the west's mendacious war in Iraq, and there is no earnest debate of the elaborately written kind that would take up a good 10 minutes of a more serious type of film.
Four Lions takes the sick logic of terrorism to its logical parodic extreme. The film wisely doesn't try to explore the roots of religious fanaticism and how it can manifest as murder: Instead, it simply accepts the world as it is and focuses on the ridiculous. Morris’ film is brutally unimpressed with the moral idiocy of suicide bombing and suggests that the only sane response is derisive laughter.