You don’t have to be Salman Rushdie to know that mixing satire and Islam can be a perilous business. Even Tina Fey felt obliged to add a disclaimer as she made a sensitive crack about Allah in her recent New Yorker piece on the controversy around working moms: “It is less dangerous,” she wrote, “to draw a cartoon of Allah French-kissing Uncle Sam—which, let me make it very clear, I have not done—than it is to speak honestly about this topic.” So to see a film like Four Lions—a brilliant farce about a London cell of inept Islamic terrorists—comes as a shock. It’s hard to believe such a nervy comedy even exists, never mind that it’s so wickedly entertaining.
Four Lions, which opens in Toronto next week, marks the feature debut of British writer-director Chris Morris, best known for his satirical work in television and radio. As Morris has taken pains to point out, his film does not mock Islam, just terrorists. The official synopsis boasts that it does for jihad “what This Is Spinal Tap did for heavy metal and Dr. Strangelove [did for] the Cold War.” Which is a fair assessment.
This hilarious satire is the story of a gang that can’t shoot straight, a quartet of bumbling terrorists who are like the Four Stooges of jihad. They quarrel like a puerile garage band over their martyr videos, shake their heads to blur surveillance photos, and eat their cellphone SIM cards like communion wafers so the police can’t track them. Their ringleader is Omar (Riz Ahmed), who is dying to blow up something—anything—along with himself. He has a loving wife and young son who are both warmly supportive as he shows them his martyr video bloopers.
Omar has no patience for puritans who say “we must measure our beards with a ruler and lock our wives in a cupboard.” And he’s relatively sane compared to the group’s resident hothead, Barry (Nigel Lindsay), a white Islamic convert who has the bright idea of bombing a mosque to stir up extremism. Then there’s the whimsical Faisal (Adeel Akhtar), who plans to strap a bomb to a crow and “fly it into one of them towers full of Jews and slags.” Finally, there’s Waj (Kayvan Novak), a lovable dolt who pictures heaven as the final level of a video game—”the martyr’s suite, VIP lounge.”
Although the comedy plays as broad farce, it has the razor wit of the culture that gave us Monty Python and Ricky Gervais. Morris wrote it with Sam Bain and Jesse Armstrong, whose cutting-edge credits include the TV show Peep Show and the film In the Loop.The actors range from an Oxford grad to stars of the Royal Shakespeare Company and the Old Vic. And they bring a dizzying precision to the dialogue, which rolls out as a vernacular blitz of English accents and mock patois, parsed with subtitles.
Shot documentary-style, the movie is weirdly credible. Like the heavy-metal bozos of This is Spinal Tap, the characters have a definite ring of veracity. Their jihad hijinks may seem absurd, but Morris based the film on three years of research. “Even those who have fought jihad report the frequency of farce,” he says. “At training camps young jihadis shoot each others’ feet off, chase snakes and get thrown out for smoking. A minute into his martyrdom video, a would-be bomber asks the cameraman, ‘What was the question again?’ Terrorist mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed [an alleged 9/11 plotter] spends two hours looking for a costume that won’t make him look fat on camera.”
Morris says his inspiration for the film came before 9/11, from reading about a botched terrorist plot on the eve of the millennium. Five jihadis planned to ram a U.S. warship with a boat full of bombs. As Morris recalls, “They stacked it with explosives. They stepped in. It sank.” He had the eureka moment—that a terrorist cell is just “a bunch of blokes planning cosmic war from a bedsit.”
But not every jihadist is a bumbling idiot. So does Morris not worry someone might take offence and make him a target? Stressing that he does not mock Islamic beliefs, he says people will be offended “only if they haven’t seen the film.” If the goal of terror is to instill fear, humour may be the ultimate antidote. For Morris’s sake, let’s hope jihad can take a joke.