Part one of a projected trilogy on Islam’s founding prophet, Muhammad: The Messenger of God arrives not as an inspired Quranic vision, but an awkward throwback to biblical-historical epics of the studio era. Writer-director Majid Majidi’s passion project focuses on Muhammad’s childhood and adolescence, and was seven years in the making, two of them spent in production and post. Yet despite the poetic visuals of veteran cinematographer Vittorio Storaro, and notwithstanding an occasionally affecting moment, the three-hour feature is rarely involving as it plods through musty movie territory in a quest for epic heights.
Muhammad was Iran’s submission for the foreign-language film Oscar (the bulk of the pic’s reported $40 million budget came from the state), but unlike Majidi’s Children of Heaven, it did not go on to secure a nomination. It has, however, broken box-office records on home turf, among a predominantly Shia Muslim population. Elsewhere, Sunni Muslims have objected to the film as blasphemous for depicting the prophet, even though his face is never shown. During production, an Indian Islamic group issued fatwas against Majidi and the film’s composer, A.R. Rahman (Slumdog Millionaire).
Moving in moments, but mainly overdone and underwhelming.
Muhammad is seen mainly from the back or with his long hair obscuring his face, and his voice is heard on occasion (in comparison, the last major film on the subject, Moustapha Akkad’s 1976 The Message, avoided onscreen images and dialogue for the prophet). From a birth tableau not unlike the Nativity, through his peripatetic youth as a merchant with his uncle Abu-Talib (Mehdi Pakdel), the figure of Muhammad is always infused with a white light that marks him as extraordinary, as does the profound effect he has on those around him.
Majidi and co-scripter Kambozia Partoei have bookended the story with scenes set decades later, when Muhammad and his followers are fighting for survival against the sanctions of the pagan elders of Mecca, led by Abu-Sofian (Darioush Farhang), who disdains the upstart worshippers of an “invisible god.” The bulk of the film is an episodic flashback to Muhammad’s childhood and the intrigue brewing around him. Those not familiar with the story of God’s last prophet on Earth will spend a good portion of the running time trying to sort out who’s who. Choppy transitions don’t help.
But between the variously stiff and schmaltzy scenes, Majidi taps into some wrenching maternal drama. The infant Muhammad’s widowed mother, Ameneh (Mina Sadati), who isn’t able to feed the baby, is at the mercy of her late husband’s prominent Meccan family.
Muhammad is denied a wet nurse by a grudging, materialistic uncle Abu-Lahab (Mohammad Asgari) and his Lady Macbeth-ish wife, Jamileh (Rana Azadivar), and eventually is fostered by a Bedouin couple (Hamidreza Tajdolat and Sareh Bayat). But just when Ameneh is celebrating the boy’s return, his paternal grandfather (Alireza Shoja Nouri) sends him away again to protect him from the prying of those who suspect that he’s the prophesied spiritual messenger, among them the Jewish leader Samuel (Mohsen Tanappabandeh).
“Let him remain unknown if you love him,” Ameneh’s father-in-law tells her, and she’s offered little comfort as she recognizes that the boy belongs to something far greater than their blood bond.
Muhammad’s compassion is evidenced in the kindness he extends to a group of slaves, while a drastically overdone scene at his foster mother’s sickbed announces his healing abilities in a way that’s as histrionic as Rahman’s score. CGI elements can be similarly strained, as in the rain of stones that saves Mecca from the Abyssinian “army of elephant riders” led by Abraheh (Arash Falahat Pishe) and presages the birth of the prophet. The would-be bravura sequence never transcends artifice.
Quieter moments, though, have a lyrical or transporting quality, especially when Storaro is shooting from Muhammad’s p.o.v.: a crescent moon reflected in water; the child’s glittering vision of the Kaaba, Mecca’s central structure; a joyous sprint through Medina, with its stream-washed fruit and baskets of rose petals. The kinetic fluency of the latter sequence also enlivens a pivotal chase involving an errant camel. And the film’s climactic action, in an impoverished seaside town, delivers a dynamic fusion of mystery and physicality that’s all too lacking elsewhere.
Except for a few scenes produced in South Africa, most of the shoot took place at a large-scale set in the Iranian city of Qom, where, with the essential contributions of production designer Miljen Kreka Kljakovic and costume designers Michael O’Connor and Seyed Mohsen Shahebrahimi, Majidi re-created an ancient world, beautifully detailed (among the many costume personnel are a considerable number of veil sewers). But he hasn’t breathed much vibrancy into that world, let alone urgency.
He does convey the connections and similarities among Islam, Judaism and Christianity, but with storytelling that’s more distancing than engaging, the movie won’t reach many audiences unschooled in the Islamic faith. Attempting to meld theology and lore with his personal experience of religion, Majidi is undone by the scope of the narrative. That’s a disappointment not just because of the ambition of the undertaking, but in light of his gift, in past films, for mixing the prosaic and the spiritual in tender, elegiac ways.
Production companies: A Noor-e-Taban Film Company production in association with Infinite Production Company GmbH
Cast: Mehdi Pakdel, Alireza Shoja Nouri, Mohsen Tanabandeh, Darioush Farhang, Mohammad Asgari, Seyed Sadegh Hatefi, Sareh Bayat, Mina Sadati, Rana Azadivar
Director: Majid Majidi
Screenwriters: Majid Majidi, Kambozia Partoei
Producer: Muhammad Mehdi Heidarian
Executive producers: Alireza Rezadaad, Parvaneh Parto
Director of photography: Vittorio Storaro
Production designer: Miljen Kreka Kljakovic
Costume designers: Michael O’Connor, Seyed Mohsen Shahebrahimi
Editor: Roberto Perpignani
Composer: A.R. Rahman
Visual effects supervisor: Scott E.Anderson
Not rated, 178 minutes