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Review: The Reluctant Fundamentalist (2013)

The Reluctant Fundamentalist (2013)

Directed by: Mira Nair

Premise: An adaptation of the novel by Mohsin Hamid. A Pakistani professor (Riz Ahmed) is wanted in connection with the abduction of an American intellectual. In an interview with a journalist cooperating with the CIA (Liev Schreiber), the professor gives his life story, recounting his years spent living in the United States and working on Wall Street and why he gave it all up.

What Works: The Reluctant Fundamentalist is a very ambitious production. The movie has a broad scope, stretching from investment firms on Wall Street to a diner in Pakistan and its makers attempt to draw a complicated web of interconnections between the first world and the developing world. Although its ambitions are not entirely fulfilled, the filmmakers succeed enough that The Reluctant Fundamentalist warrants a recommendation. This is a movie dealing with sophisticated issues and the picture gives the sense that its filmmakers earnestly want to grasp those issues and capture them in the context of a story. The Reluctant Fundamentalist is told in a frame narrative, in which the Changez, the main character played by Riz Ahmed, tells the story in flashback from the present. This structure should only be used for good reason, and the filmmakers generally use it wisely, allowing for reflection and revision. For the bulk of the movie, Changez recalls his work for a high profile Wall Street investment firm in which he evaluated companies and then found ways to maximize profits by slimming the workforce. As he rises in the company, Changez gradually begins to work in overseas investments and eventually has a crisis of identity in which he realizes that he is causing economic hardship for people in developing countries on behalf of corporate interests in the first world. Changez’s anxiety about the way his identity and allegiance are split between the West and the East is one of The Reluctant Fundamentalist’s most interesting themes.The filmmakers parallel the fundamentalism of terroristic ideology with an economic fundamentalism that is devastating in its own way. What the filmmakers suggest with that parallel is provocative and it implies a very different conception of terrorism than is usually supposed by other movies or by the media at large.

What Doesn’t: There are a few key missteps in The Reluctant Fundamentalist. The economic aspects of this story are handled pretty well but the religious themes are not presented as fully. Changez is a Pakistani and a Muslim; those are two separate aspects of his identity but they are often treated as one and despite its length the film never delves deeply enough into Changez’s religious beliefs. In fact, he participates in activities that are inconsistent with the tenants of his faith like alcohol consumption and premarital sex and so his religious transformation seems to come less as a renewal of faith and more out of a sense of allegiance to his family and his fellow Pakistani countrymen. The Reluctant Fundamentalist also has a complicated and sometimes confusing regard for terrorism, namely the September 11th attack. The attack is presented as though Changez is the only one impacted by the events of that day and when he reflects on his reactions in the outer frame of the story some of his comments are inconsistent with his character. Clearly the filmmakers are trying to play Changez as morally ambiguous, teasing the audience with the possibility that he is a terrorist. The trouble is that ambiguity is not something that the filmmakers of The Reluctant Fundamentalist do well and some of the scenes and ideas that should be underplayed are often hit directly on the head. The finale of the picture gets extremely didactic, oversimplifying complex issues in an attempt to wrap up the story, and this oversimplification is contrary to the other content of the film.

DVD extras: Featurette, trailer.

Bottom Line: The Reluctant Fundamentalist is flawed but it is also a movie that succeeds enough and in the right places that it deserves to seen and discussed. This is a film that will be provocative for both Western and Eastern audiences and it manages to take familiar conflicts and present them in a new way.

Episode: #466 (November 17, 2013)