‘Infidel’ Review: Jim Caviezel, Who Once Played Jesus, Risks Martyrdom Again in Faith-Centric Thriller

In “Infidel,” Jim Caviezel plays Christian blogger Doug Rawlins, who travels to Cairo to participate in a televised conference on religion. The Muslim host seeks commonalities between the two faiths. “We love Jesus Christ,” the man says, after which Doug pauses for a moment, weighing his words, before rejecting the figurative olive branch. “He is God,” Doug And He wants to be your God.” The audience (within the film, but surely not the one watching it) is stunned at Doug’s audacity. Less surprising still, Doug is kidnapped from his hotel room by angry Muslims a few hours later.

The movie actually opens with Doug facing a firing squad on a Tehran rooftop, so we know from the jump that his Cairo visit didn’t go well. On the surface, “Infidel” appears to be a straightforward Middle East-set thriller — the kind that reaffirm Americans’ xenophobic impulses, wherein Muslims fulfill the worst stereotypes and traditional music played over dusty foreign cities is meant to put viewers on edge. It features several decent fight scenes, explosions and chases (one involving a helicopter), plus some impressive locations work as Jordan doubles for several countries. But that’s all meant to add a veneer of glossy excitement to a rather straightforward Christian parable about standing up for what you believe in.

Coming from the mouth of the actor who played Jesus in Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ,” Doug’s “He is God” declaration is meant to represent conviction, not carelessness. His wife Liz (Claudia Karvan) isn’t surprised when her husband turns his Cairo invitation into an opportunity to proselytize. Liz works for the State Department, which puts her in a relatively strong position to help rescue Doug from her captors when the time comes. She doesn’t share his faith, having abandoned Christianity after a car accident claimed their unborn child — an unnecessarily traumatic flashback inserted early in a film struggling to look like more than a straight-to-video faith-based thriller.

The conservative answer to such Middle East-set films as “Rendition” and “Syriana,” “Infidel” is one of the widest exclusive-to-theaters U.S. releases since the pandemic closed most cinemas, reportedly opening on 2,400 screens in 1,724 locations. Originally intended to open on 9/11, the film takes a tough look at the that dimension of both Christianity and Islam that refuses to accept the other, and speculates as to which is better suited to “win” this standoff. It’s biased, of course, and the movie’s attitude toward Muslim could be summarized as: We will respect your religion, to a point, but the moment you try to limit our freedom, then all bets are off. Twice, we see Liz tear away her obligatory hijab while in Tehran, the first time to replace it with an American-style baseball cap, and later in an act of overt defiance, throwing the headscarf to the ground. Considering the demographic the film targets, one can easily imagine audiences doing the same with their face masks at the megaplex.

Nearly a decade ago, writer-director Cyrus Nowrasteh made a powerful, if heavy-handed drama entitled “The Stoning of Soraya M.” in which he sensationalized a barbaric aspect of Iranian culture. But stoning seems a slap on the wrist compared to the threat Doug faces in front of this firing squad: Repent, accept Allah’s word, and he will be spared, promises Hezbollah kidnapper Ramzi (Hal Ozsan). It’s a prospect every bit as antithetical to Doug’s character as the pressure put on Jesuit priests to apostatize in Martin Scorsese’s “Silence.” Only, Scorsese was taking a serious-minded look at the consequences of Christian evangelism on unreceptive soil, whereas Doug’s dilemma serves to kick off a gung-ho action movie — one that brings Western justice to a heathen country, where Christians must practice undercover.

Still, “Infidel” isn’t as anti-Islam as it may sound. American-born Nowrasteh is himself of Iranian descent, teaming here with sensationalist producer Dinesh D’Souza (whose partisan documentaries aim to demonize such progressive heroes as Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton and Michael Moore) to make a film that’s openly critical of the country’s more absolutist views. But the filmmaker proves himself to be sensitive to the biases and abuse Islamic people face in the United States.

Early in the film, Doug and Liz attend a party hosted by their Iranian friend Javin (Aly Kassem), whose home is raided by police. Javin, we learn even before Doug does, is a radical potential terrorist who disowns his Western-minded daughter, and yet, the movie’s nuanced enough to draw a parallel between the way these two characters are treated in one another’s countries. “We’re not afraid to die. That’s why we’re going to win,” ready-for-martyrdom Ramzi (who’s easily the film’s most charismatic character) tells Doug, who responds, “I’m not afraid either.”

Such religious conviction is rare in film characters, but it’s treated here as admirably as James Bond refusing to spill state secrets under torture. Doug’s captors transport him to section 209 of Tehran’s notorious Evin prison, where dissidents are housed. Although Caviezel’s character is meant to stand in for all Americans unjustly imprisoned by Iran, it would be irresponsible to take the film’s “inspired by true events” claim too seriously. That doesn’t mean it’s not satisfying to watch Liz and several co-conspirators raid the facility in an attempt to liberate Doug and all those unjustly detained political prisoners. In this fantasy telling, at least, God is on his side.

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