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FOUR LIONS: can terrorism ever be safe for comedy?

FOUR LIONS, a comedy about terrorism at the Sundance Film Festival 2010

FOUR LIONS, a pitch-black farce that begins with jihadi-video bloopers, raises some obvious questions. Are jokes about suicide bombers in poor taste? Is it too soon to be finding the hilarity in extreme radicalism? Can terrorism ever be safe for comedy? But if FOUR LIONS proves anything, it’s that “safety” and “taste” are irrelevant concepts for a comedy about such a deadly serious subject; whatever larger meaning we might glean from the film comes from the inherent danger of the project and from the discomfort it provokes.

The movie’s writer-director Chris Morris is a British political satirist with a lethal aim and a taste for absurdity, like Stephen Colbert or Jon Stewart but with a surrealist bent. FOUR LIONS is not unprecedented in — as the title of Albert Brooks’ 2006 movie puts it — “looking for comedy in the Muslim world.” And the Brits, for some reason, have been especially bold in portraying Islamic extremism in unexpected lights. Zadie Smith’s (pre-9/11) novel White Teeth features a clumsy Islamic terrorist group with the unfortunate acronym KEVIN. Martin Amis wrote a short story, “The Last Days of Muhammad Atta,” detailing the inner life — and constipated bowel movements — of a 9/11 hijacker.

Set in the north of England, the film chronicles the bumbling misadventures of a group of young Muslims plotting a terrorist attack (two of them also venture to Pakistan for a disastrous training stint). For much of its duration, it could almost pass for an Ealing comedy. One of the guys argues that bombing a mosque is the best way to radicalize Muslims; they practice for the eventuality of capture by ceremoniously swallowing their SIM cards. The characters are cartoons, but beneath their clownish façades, this often very funny movie bluntly identifies the forces and factors that might drive someone to terrorism: the desire for community and a sense of purpose, righteous anger at being marginalized, a raging persecution complex, stupidity verging on mental disability.

FOUR LIONS is a comedy that turns tragic by pushing the logic of terrorism to its breaking point. Which is not the same as making terrorism “safe” for satire. Quite the contrary: Morris is all too aware that humor has its limits, as you realize in the movie’s gutsy final act, when the bloodshed begins and the laughs start to catch in your throat.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Read Dennis’s earlier post on the documentary THE OATH about Osama Bin Laden’s former driver.