MY SON THE FANATIC (UK, 1998) ***
The film opens with dad, mother and son visiting the home of Madeleine, the daughter of the local Chief Police Inspector, to celebrate her engagement to Farid. Quickly and deftly it sketches Parvez as an exuberant, voluble extrovert who is happy with his family's new connection with (for him) upscale Brits. But a discreet subtext implies that the Inspector and his spouse are politely displeased by their alliance.
Proceeding to its main themes, MSTF makes its main points clearly. These are based on a reversal of the more familiar mentality of immigrants, where the older, often-homesick and traditional generation has trouble assimilating, while the young people feel at home with their Englishness. Here, Parvez feels totally Westernized and happy to be so. But soon enough, Farid falls under the spell of Muslim fundamentalists, joins them, breaks his engagement, gets religious fervor, even transforms his parents' home into a guest-house for visiting, white-garbed co-religionists. The friction with his father grows. The young man accuses him of being blind to the decline of a West that has no values yet demonizes the Muslims: "You have swallowed all this white and Jewish propaganda. "
Farid's mother seems to accepts ther son's changes. She also accepts her new status as the inferior gender that cooks for the visitors and takes her own meals alone in the kitchen. Kureishi's script is not overtly political. It is obvious that he does not want the fate of Salman Rushdie. But it is also obvious where his sympathies lie.
From the very beginning two threads are developed. In his taxi Parvez also ferries prostitutes and their clients, considers sex in the back seat and his providing visitors with information about hookers to be natural parts of his job.
One girl in particular, Bettina, has a friendly rapport with Parvez. An attractive, quiet, natural charmer, she is played by Aussie Rachel Griffiths with a certain cachet and inner elegance. Her excellent movie debut was in the Australian "Muriel's Wedding" where she was second-billed, as Muriel's lively and promiscuous first friend. Her other credits include "My Best Friend's Wedding" and especially "Hilary and Jackie" (NOT about Mrs. Clinton and Mrs. Kennedy ) which brought her several festival nominations, plus one for an Oscar.
Parvez and Bettina are thrown closer when the cabbie is regularly hired by Mr. Schitz, a visiting German businessman (played by the Swedish actor Stellan Skarsgård) who also keeps hiring Bettina. Skarsgård has been in many movies since 1972, yet is familiar mostly from the 90's films "Breaking the Waves" and "Ronin. " His accent is oddly American, his part so underdeveloped that no persona emerges. We only know that he is heavily and cynically into sex and does drugs. He uses Parvez as a sort of pimp, even pays him to recruit hookers and organize taxis for their transportation for an ill-defined orgy, presumably to improve his business contacts. At the end of this affair, Parvez is given money to pay the girls one by one.
The several scenes that include Schitz are murky. There is also some lack of connection, continuity and development in other sections, including those with or about Parvez and/or Bettina. But at least there is enough rapport as well as superior acting (it feels effortless and natural) between the older Pakistani man and the British girl, before, during and after they become lovers. In fact, in different, diffident, idiosyncratic ways, the cabby and the hooker have sweet --but never maudlin-- and touching personalities and an evolving relationship treated with much originality.
The gulf between father and son reaches a point of no return when an intolerant Muslim group sets fire to a dwelling of hookers, attacks them physically. Farid beats Bettina, his father comes to her rescue.
With the young convert taking off with his fellow-believers, and with the mother leaving the home, Parvez finds himself alone in an empty house. But without hints about the fuure. There is, to the picture's credit, no closure.
MSTF, though imperfect, is a warm, gripping film. Its major flaw, in common with many contemporary British movies, is that no concessions are made to non-British ears. The melding of British English and sing-song Eastern intonations (Parvez, his wife, etc), as well as the "white" Midlands accents , made the film critics at the movie's preview agree that only 50 percent of the dialogue was understood. The sounds of speech, and their recording are increasingly neglected in many movies from the UK and the USA.
Much of this is avoidable. The proof is that Parvez has an erratic enunciation which ranges from impenetrable to (in his quiet talks with Bettina) perfectly clear. On the other hand, the dialogues we miss are not all that important, since Parvez and Bettina are wonderful at body language and facial expressions. There is also a particularly good (and symbolic) use of Western pop and jazz that Parvez loves, while some Muslim chants and sounds are heard as counterpoint.
Although MSTF was released in England in 1998, it was premiered in the
Directors' Fortnight series at the 1997 Cannes Film Festival. Its
source was a short story by Hanif Kureishi in the New Yorker magazine,
later collected in the writer's Love in a Blue Time. Three previous
films scripted by Kureishi were "My Beautiful Laundrette" and "Sammy and
Rosie Get Laid" directed by Stephen Frears and "London Kills Me" directed
by the writer.