Before its unveiling, some found “The Reluctant Fundamentalist” a peculiar choice as Venice opener by new artistic director Alberto Barbera, even taking into account Mira Nair’s history here (the Indian-born, New York-based filmmaker won the Golden Lion with “Monsoon Wedding” in 2001). Now that it’s aired, the reasons are clearer: its more controversial parts will send Fox News spinning into hours of self-righteous paroxysm. Nair’s storytelling here is much like her film’s protagonist: often muscularly charismatic, intriguing and appealing, but sometimes blunt, exasperating or mystifying. It’s adapted from a novel by Moshin Hamid about one man’s post-9/11 identity crisis and benefits from an exceptional turn by Riz Ahmed, a handsome evocation of modern-day Lahore and thought-provoking insights into cross-cultural misperception.
The film opens compellingly on the streets of 2011 Lahore, with a folk-band’s catchy performance crosscut with the kidnapping of a Westerner that’s seemingly being orchestrated over a cellphone by Changez (Ahmed). Into the lion’s den comes Liev Schreiber seeking information about the kidnapped man, an American colleague of Changez’s at Lahore University, assumed by CIA spooks to be a new hotbed for Islamic radicalism. But, as Changez tell him, “Looks can be deceiving.”
Jumping back a decade, the film charts Changez’s journey from Princeton University student to hotshot Wall Street analyst to his eventual post-9/11 disillusionment with America in favour of repatriation to Pakistan. There are swathes where Nair’s cross-cutting storytelling is a treat; at others, it’s awkward and heavy-handed, not helped by the fact that characters are signposted in simplistic fashion. Changez embraces rapacious capitalism (under the tutelage of Kiefer Sutherland’s captivating Master of the Universe) because his rich Lahore friends laughed at him when he pushed his poet father’s beat-up car into their driveway; Kate Hudson can callously betray their relationship with an art project because she’s a damaged, self-absorbed American rich girl; and Schreiber gets locked into increasingly dogmatic and repetitive conversations with Changez as the CIA sit outside waiting to pounce.
A little more third-act finessing could work wonders here, but the bigger question is whether American audiences will be willing to go see a film where the hero flashes a jubilant smile at the TV screen as the planes slam into the World Trade Centre, confessing, “In this moment, I should have felt sorrow or anger but all I felt was awe.” While the story slams terrorism, fundamentalism and capitalism with equal vigour, it’s likely to be a stumbling block. Still, it’s worth singling out Ahmed for continuing to tackle contentious themes in his work with unflinching zeal (see also suicide-bomber comedy “Four Lions”). He delivers a potent, intelligent performance, making each step of Changez’s evolution entirely believable if not always ingratiating for more delicate sensibilities.