Tuesday,12 December, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1261, (3 - 9 September 2015)
Tuesday,12 December, 2017
Issue 1261, (3 - 9 September 2015)

Ahram Weekly

The Iranian message

Hani Mustafa takes stock of Iran’s grand production

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Al-Ahram Weekly

The world premiere of Iranian filmmaker Majid Majidi’s Muhammad, the Messenger of God took place at the 39th World Film Festival in Montreal a few days ago. At around the same time, it was released in Iranian cinemas. As usual with films dealing with the Abrahamic prophets, the film has generated more religious controversy than cinematic discussion in the media and on the internet – especially in the (Sunni) Muslim world, where the received opinion is that the dramatic portrayal of prophets or companions of the Prophet Muhammad is strictly prohibited. The latest such issue occurred when a distribution company in Egypt tried to screen Darren Aronovsky’s Noah, only to be blocked by the official censorship bureau backed by Al-Azhar.

From Cecil DeMille’s 1956 The Ten Commandments to Mel Gibson’s 2004 The Passion of the Christ, world cinema is full of such films. The former dealt with the story of Moses and history with Pharaoh, presenting the Egyptians as the racist oppressors of the victimised Jewish minority, and though it was banned in Egypt the decision probably had more to do with the Arab-Israeli conflict than religious prohibitions as such. The Passion of the Christ, however, was not banned – again probably for political rather than cultural reasons, with the former president Mubarak attempting to the portray itself to the Bush administration as an open and moderate democratic regime, showing tolerance to Christianity.

A $40 million production – the largest for an Iranian film to date – the film (170 mins.) opens just before the birth of the Prophet Muhammad and follows his life course until adolescence. It is the first part of an ambitious trilogy covering the Prophet’s entire life. Many believe the film conforms to Shia theology, which does not have the same prohibition on personifying religious figures. Indeed painted icons of Imam Ali and Imam Hussein are commonplace among the Shia. As Majidi explained in Montreal, he consulted with both Sunni and Shia clerics before making the film, and this is why the Prophet’s face never appears (in line with Sunni theology) – besides which there is no disagreement between the two schools of thought on the period covered by the film. Whether at Al-Azhar or in the Wahhabi school of Saudi Arabia, Sunni clerics categorically reject showing any part of the Prophet’s body or having his voice heard, however; the same applies to other prophets of Islam and Companions of Muhammad.

It is worth mentioning that the set designers constructed an entire city resembling 6th-century Mecca in the Iranian desert, as well as filming the Battle of the Elephant, in which the Abyssinian general Abraha attempted to destroy the Kaaba in South Africa. Muhammad was filmed by Vittorio Storaro – who won three Oscars, for Frances Ford Coppola’s 1980 Apocalypse Now, Warren Beatty’s 1981 Reds and Bernardo Bertolucci’s 1987 The Last Emperor – which makes it a visually world-class film. Majidi, for his part, is a world acclaimed Iranian director, with such credits to his name as Children of Heaven (1997), which was nominated for an Oscar in 1999, receiving Montreal’s Grand Prix and the FIPRESCI prize in 1997. His Baran (2001) also won the Grand Prix, and his The Song of Sparrows (2008) won the best actor award and was nominated for the Golden Bear at the Berlin Film Festival.  

As always, the controversy the film has generated in the Sunni world is at bottom political. The conflict reflects actual Sunni-Shia conflict in the Arab world, where Iran has been intervening militarily or through its intelligence in Syria, Lebanon and Yemen as well as Iraq, notably since the Arab Spring. Sunni strongholds, notably Saudi Arabia, have been especially wary of Iranian influence since the US nuclear deal with Iran. Official positions in Sunni countries, which will probably ban the film, is likely to intensify that tension, so while Muhammad might bring Islam closer to the west it will not help resolve intra-Muslim conflict.

The Syrian-American director Moustapha Akkad’s 1977 The Message – filmed twice with two different casts in Arabic and English – avoided any physical or aural depiction of the Prophet, making the Prophet’s uncle Hamza (played by Anthony Quinn in the English and the Egyptian actor Abdallah Gheith in the Arabic version) the protagonist. Though it too was controversial, prompting a ban in Egypt on its release, The Message was remarkably successful across the world, and it is likely that Muhammad will be equally successful – a possible contribution to world tolerance and peace. At least this is Majidi’s own hope, according to what he told the press in Montreal: Muhammad is an attempt to counter racism and Islamophobia.

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