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Indie Focus: ‘Four Lions’

At a glance, “Four Lions,” the debut feature from director and co-writer Chris Morris that first played at the Sundance Film Festival in January, seems certain to upset people on all points of the cultural and political spectrum: It’s a dark comedy about a cell of British would-be jihadists who bumble through the planning of a suicide bomb plot.

The cell’s putative leader ( Riz Ahmed) is depicted as a conscientious family man struggling to reconcile his religious beliefs with the realities of his daily life. The film’s most straight-ahead buffoon is a laughable blowhard named Barry (Nigel Lindsay), an Anglo-English convert to Islam who acts extra-militant to prove his convictions.

With the film’s stinging blend of dense wordplay and slapstick physical comedy, it’s easy to see the aspiring terrorists as harmless bunglers until bombs do, in fact, start exploding and lives indeed are lost and Morris’ movie shifts tone to deeper shadings.

Morris defends the film, which opens in nine cities, including Los Angeles on Nov. 5, as being grounded in truth. He did more than three years of extensive research, interviewing everyday citizens, trained jihadists, police and terrorism experts and reviewing court transcripts and other documents. He said the story really began to take shape after he came across a recounting of a failed terror plot in which a Yemeni group of would-be bombers overloaded a boat with explosives only to watch it sink.

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“You can’t anticipate what’s going to strike you as funny,” said Morris, 45, during a recent phone call from his home in London. “But you have five guys standing around a sunken boat and they look like a reaction shot. And I just thought, ‘Who spoke first and what did he say?’

“There’s no reason why guys trying to organize something shouldn’t be funny,” he continued. “Why wouldn’t it be? There are going to be clashes of personality, differences of opinion, there are going to be mistakes.”

Morris is no stranger to ruffling feathers. Earlier in his career he collaborated with Steve Coogan and Armando Iannucci (director of last year’s Oscar-nominated “In the Loop”) on a news parody show called “The Day Today.” Appearing as something of a puffed-up prototype for Stephen Colbert, Morris created a show called “Brass Eye” that notoriously ran a 2001 special lambasting the media’s obsession with pedophilia.

The British media has at times referred to Morris as “the dark lord of comedy” and “the most loathed man on TV.”

“Some of the most offensive things I’ve done have not been called the most offensive things I’ve done because they’ve been done in a different way,” Morris said. “Now [‘Four Lions’] will look like it’s going to be offensive, you say ‘comedy about terrorism,’ and it seems like a contradiction in terms. But I knew that what we delivered would not match that. Actually my concern is we get called controversial when we can’t even enjoy the idea of being controversial. It seemed to me entirely beside the point. I wanted people to see the film for what it is.”

Perhaps the truest test of the film’s hot-button status, whether real or perceived, was that no American distributor picked up “Four Lions” after its premiere at Sundance or in the months subsequent, even after it won the audience award for narrative feature at this past summer’s Los Angeles Film Festival. In early September it was announced the project would be brought to theaters as the first release of a new distribution entity, Drafthouse Films.

“I was very smitten with this film,” said Tim League, founder and CEO of the Texas-based Alamo Drafthouse theaters. He said he decided “Four Lions” would be the best start for Drafthouse Films after noticing how the film had “slipped through the cracks” of existing distributors.

From recent dust-ups over the so-called ground zero mosque or threatened Koran burnings, the anxiety over Islamic extremism and its connections to terrorism has only grown in the months since “Four Lions” first premiered.

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“We feel pretty confident it’s not inflammatory toward the religion at all, and all the Muslim audiences can embrace the film,” League said. “Using anecdotal evidence from his research, Chris has crafted a very careful storyline that’s really, really funny and really thoughtful and insightful and actually engages the dialogue that’s live right now in this society about Islamophobia in a very real way.”

There has been little to no actual protest or disagreement about the film. With Morris aiming for sensitive rather than sensationalistic, “Four Lions” might prove to be more a conversation starter than controversy magnet.

“The people who thought we were controversial were always the people who knew the least,” said Morris, noting how any negative responses to the film are often rooted in generalizations and predetermined assumptions. “The most common [comment] was, ‘Now, obviously this is going to upset the Muslims.’”

calendar@latimes.com


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