By Joan Ellis
How often do you watch a movie that invites you to open your mind wide for new understanding?
Not often in our polarized world. As a story of complex cultures in alternating time frames, The Reluctant Fundamentalist is not easy to watch, but it offers us the reward of new insights into the Middle Eastern puzzle that is bedeviling the world. Neither left nor right will find support for preconceived perceptions. We owe mighty thanks to director Mira Nair and to Ami Boghani for writing the script based on the novel by Mohsin Hamid. Together they have forced us to think.
Changez (Riz Ahmed) comes to America from Pakistan at 18. Four years later, armed with a B.A., he is hired by a Wall Street firm whose CEO Jim Cross (Kiefer Sutherland) sees his analytical gifts. As global business consultants, they travel extensively while using Changez’s mathematical talent to assess the worth of companies and to tell them how to increase profits.
From this point forward, the film shifts, sometimes confusingly, between Pakistan and New York with important relationships visited on side trips to other countries (watch Haluk Bilginer in Istanbul). We are observing the values of America and Pakistan through the eyes of a successful man from each country. Along the way, Changez has met Bobby (Liev Schreiber), an American journalist who has lived in Pakistan for seven years. Their conversations cut to the core of the cultural chaos that engulfs them – and the rest of us. Because neither man believes in violence as a tool for social change, their arguments reveal the cultural complexity of our time.
After 9/11, Changez suffers both demeaning profiling searches at airports and repeated public insults that reinforce the pull of his homeland. He resigns and returns home to become a firebrand university professor. This is a man who aspires not to be a jihadist, but to guide his students in a zealous pursuit of the truth. “I was living the American dream,” he tells them, and then asks, “Is there a Pakistani dream?” If he could, he would sweep away the fundamentals taught in America and the Middle East that have generated the conflict that makes understanding impossible. At the table sit an aggressive young America and a centuries-old Middle East with an impenetrable mist between them.
Two major questions loom. The first is “Who can you trust?” Changez is forced to question the trust he has for his CEO, for Bobby, and for the one American he trusts completely, his girlfriend Erica (Kate Hudson). Bobby is forced to re-evaluate his trust for Changez, for his own American bosses and for his Pakistani friends.
The second question is not “Who is right?” but “What is right?”
This profound movie and its exceptional cast float the question without suggesting an answer. We must do that for ourselves. How can we root out modern terrorism in the Middle East and America without destroying each other?
Joan Ellis’ address on the Internet, which contains her review library, is JoanEllis.com.