Kayvan Novak, Arshan Ali, Riz Ahmed and Nigel Lindsay prepare for war in Four Lions

In 1965, a new television series entitled Hogan’s Heroes caused mild outrage by (according to its critics) trivializing the horrors of World War II. Now writer-director Chris Morris’s new film, Four Lions (currently playing at San Francisco’s Lumiere Theatre — an East Bay run seems unlikely) threatens to provoke similar howls of disgust concerning its treatment of the so-called ‘War on Terror’ — assuming enough of the right (or wrong) people see it.

However, with its focus firmly upon the suffering and stupidity of the war, Four Lions is ultimately more tragedy than sitcom: though marketed as a comedy of (t)errors, it’s actually a thoughtful, even-handed attempt to address the inherent absurdity of our amorphous and ill-defined ‘clash of civilizations’.

Set in Sheffield, England, Four Lions introduces us to an amateur terror cell plotting revenge for the British government’s crimes against Islam. There’s hardcore white Muslim Barry (Nigel Lindsay), thoughtful but determined Omar (The Road to Guantanamo’s Riz Ahmed), thick as a brick Waj (Kayvan Novak), nervous nellie Fessal (Adeel Akhtar), and hopeless bourgeois Hassan (Arshan Ali). And, though collectively determined to do something — anything — to right the wrongs done to the faith, they’re not quite sure what form ‘something’ should take.

After Omar and Waj return home from a failed attempt to train with the mujahideen in Pakistan, the group busy themselves recording martyrdom videos and experimenting with explosives. There’s still the little question of a target, however, and when zealous convert Barry suggests the local mosque would be suitable (his theory: kill enough Muslims, and the survivors will rise up to overthrow the non-believers), the group balks.

When Fessal is accidentally killed during a dry run, however, time becomes of the essence and the four remaining lions settle on a target that (hopefully) won’t kill quite as many of their co-religionists: a charity ‘fun run’ in which they’ll blend in with the crowd before detonating payloads and ascending to heaven.

On paper, this all sounds relentlessly grim, but the film maintains a steady flow of low-key absurdities and satirical barbs worthy of an Armando Iannucci film. Scenes are, however, rarely played for laughs alone: when Omar tells his son a bedtime story blending elements of The Lion King with fundamentalist Islamic theology, the tale is amusing and disturbing in equal measure, as is a later scene in which police snipers haggle over the difference between a wookie and a bear. It is to Morris’ credit that neither of these scenes is far-fetched or farcical.

Seventeenth century playwright John Fletcher defined tragicomedy thusly: “A tragi-comedie is not so called in respect of mirth and killing, but in respect it wants deaths, which is enough to make it no tragedy, yet brings some neere it, which is inough to make it no comedie.” It’s a style audiences are not as familiar with today as they once were: we expect our comedies to be funny and our kitchen sink dramas to be bleak, but rarely do the twain meet.

Dickensian melodrama, with its inevitable happy ending prefaced by a lifetime of suffering, remains a model we are more comfortable with. And there are no happy endings in this film: both the guilty and the innocent die or are spirited away by the security services, terrible crimes are committed both in the name of God and in the name of ‘national security’, and even the (imagined?) death of Osama Bin Laden seems anti-climactic and deeply unsatisfying.

If your response to Four Lions is both laughter and tears, that’s probably the point.

Freelancer John Seal is Berkeleyside’s film critic. A movie connoisseur with a penchant for natty hats who lives in Oakland, John writes a weekly film recommendation column at Box Office Prophets, as...