Film Review: ‘Muhammad: The Messenger of God’

muhammad THe Messenger of God
Courtesy of Noor-eTaban Film Co.

Majid Majidi's dull historical epic follows the early life of the man who became a prophet.

Majid Majidi, the first Iranian helmer nominated for the foreign-language film Oscar (for 1997’s “The Children of Heaven”), delivers his country’s most expensive film to date with the lumbering, old-fashioned and overlong historical epic “Muhammad: The Messenger of God.” Budgeted in the neighborhood of $40 million, and boasting big names behind the scenes such as lenser Vittorio Storaro and composer A.R. Rahman, as well as craft departments bristling with foreign technicians, the 171-minute pic is the first of a projected trilogy that took seven years to complete. It hasn’t been worth the wait: The end result is something more akin to 1950s Hollywood biblical fare rather than Darren Aronofsky’s recent “Noah” or anything in Majidi’s previous oeuvre.

“Muhammad: The Messenger of God” opened the Montreal World Film Festival on Aug. 27, a venue where Majidi previously won the Grand Prize of the Americas with “The Children of Heaven,” “The Color of Paradise” and “Baran.” On the same date, it rolled out in 57 screens in Iran, and may expand to 140 (nearly half the Islamic Republic’s 320 screens).

Restricted by both its narrative scope (it follows Muhammad from the year of his birth to the age of 12) and religious prohibitions against showing the prophet’s face, Majidi tries to enliven matters whenever possible with action scenes (legendary battles, chases through the marketplace, pilgrims circling the Kaaba, hand-to-hand combat, camel caravans, horses galloping across the desert), but action is not this helmer’s forte. These cliched scenes, in combination with the elaborate but cheesy-looking special effects, register mostly as second-rate copies of Western cinematic conventions.

Also problematic, at least for offshore audiences, is that those unfamiliar with the history of Islam — and the story behind the man considered by Muslims to be the last prophet sent to humankind by God — may be more than a little lost. Given the surge of worldwide interest in what Islam is all about, and that the pic is likely to be Iran’s Oscar submission for best foreign-language film, it would pay to invest in some title cards providing pertinent background information so that non-Muslim viewers know the relationships between the dramatis personae, how the Bani-Hashim relate to the Quraysh tribe, and just who was worshipping what and ruling where at the time. Right now, the film’s main takeaway is that Islam, Judaism and Christianity share similar values and roots.

Majidi respects Islamic convention by never showing Muhammad’s face and shooting him mostly from the back. At the press conference, he explained that he and cinematographer Storaro customized a Steadicam especially to show the prophet’s point of view. However, since the central part of the film covers Muhammad’s life before he became a prophet, we hear the actors playing him at the ages of 6, 8 and 12 (Alireza Jalili, Hossein Jalali and Amir Heidari, respectively). But in the scenes that bookend the film and are set 50 years later, his words are repeated by his uncle Aboutaleb (Mehdi Pakdel).

Muhammad’s birth in Mecca in the year 570 follows the failed invasion of the city by the fierce and flashily clad Abyssian general Abrahe (Arash Falahat Pishe) and his fearsome elephant army. It’s the first of many action setpieces featuring risible but no doubt expensive effects work — in this case, a whirlwind of computer-generated birds that repel the advancing warriors by dropping sharp stones.

Muhammad’s grandfather Abdolmotaleb (a scenery-chewing turn by Alireza Shoja Nouri, who during his time at the Farabi Cinema Foundation was one of the architects of the post-revolutionary Iranian cinema) is the elder of the Bani-Hashim clan, which is part of the Quraysh tribe. A firm believer in only one god, he is also the guardian of the Kaaba, a site of worship and pilgrimage.

The hackneyed visual iconography used to depict Muhammad’s birth to Ameneh (played by the beatifically smiling Mina Sadati) resembles that which usually accompanies the birth of Christ — twinkling starry sky, bright lights — although, of course, no manger. But Muhammad’s arrival sparks some discontent in the Bani-Hashim clan. His conniving uncle Aboulahab (Mohammad Asgari) and jealous wife Jamileh (Rana Azadivar) refuse to allow their maid to be the baby’s wet nurse.

Pious patriarch Abdolmotaleb, who recognizes that the infant is special, dispatches Muhammad to the desert under the care of Bedouin foster parents Hamzeh (Hamidreza Tajdolat) and Halimeh (Sareh Bayat). With the baby’s arrival, barren nature transforms into a green and abundant oasis. Meanwhile, elders of the Jewish community also recognize the portents surrounding Muhammad’s birth and try to track his whereabouts. Likewise, but much later in the narrative, a Christian priest recognizes in Muhammad the values of Jesus.

Given that there’s a limit to the interesting things babies can do, the story starts to perk up when the 6-year-old Muhammad (always clad in sparkling white) breaks pagan idols and heals Halimeh as she lies on her deathbed. Rumor of his special power spreads, and he becomes a target for kidnapping: Cue some additional action scenes of hand-to-hand combat. Riding rapidly across the scenic desert, Hamzeh reunites Muhammad with Ameneh, but she dies during their travels together. Abdolmotaleb takes over as guardian and teacher, and on his deathbed appoints Aboutaleb to care for him.

Although young, Muhammad works as a traveling merchant with Aboutaleb, and develops a reputation for honesty and good deeds. He also demonstrates a pronounced sympathy for the weak and persecuted. His compassion is expressed in its most spectacular form when he and Aboutaleb arrive at an impoverished coastal city with their camel caravan, and Muhammad not only saves the miserable souls designated as human sacrifices but apparently summons a tidal wave full of fish for the starving villagers.

Although many of Majidi’s earlier films dealt with the spiritual purity that comes with selfless love and deliver a religious rapture of sorts, “Muhammad: The Messenger of God” feels stiff and awkward, burdened rather than elevated by its weighty subject matter. And it doesn’t help that the characters remain cardboard cutouts of historical figures, never attaining any psychological or emotional life. The actors either overact or look ill at ease.

While the great Storaro composes some beautiful shots in the desert (using the 1:2 ratio he has trademarked as Univisium), the film seems to cry out for CinemaScope instead. Moreover, neither his lensing nor Rahman’s faux-Middle Eastern score feel organic to the story or setting; rather, they feel like show-offy, marketing-driven additions. The worst technical contribution is the ponderous and confusing editing, which seems to show no intrinsic understanding of the characters and their relationships.

Film Review: ‘Muhammad: The Messenger of God’

Reviewed at Montreal World Film Festival (opener), Aug. 27, 2015. Running time: 171 MIN.

Production

(Iran-Germany) A Noor-eTaban Film Co. production, in co-production with Infinite Prod. Co. (International sales: Noor-eTaban Film Co., Tehran.) Produced by Muhammad Mehdi Heidarian. Executive producers, Ali Reza Rezadaad, Parvaneh Parto.

Crew

Directed by Majid Majidi. Screenplay, Majidi, Kambozia Partoei; dialogue rewrite, Majidi, Bijan Mirbagheri. Camera (color, 35mm, Univisium), Vittorio Storaro; editor, Roberto Perpignani; music, A.R. Rahman; production designer, Miljen Kreka Kljakovic; art director, Branimir Babic; costume designers, Michael O’Connor, Seyed Mohsen Shahebrahimi; sound, Yadolah Najafi, Rashid Daneshmand, Mohamadreza Delpak, Hosein Mahdavi; visual effects supervisor, Scott E. Anderson; special effects designer, Mohamad Javad Sharifi Raad; special effects supervisor, Stefano Corridori; line producer, Joachim Sturmes.

With

Mehdi Pakdel, Alireza Shoja Nouri, Mohsen Tanabandeh, Sareh Bayat, Mina Sadati, Darioush Farhang, Mohammad Asgari, Seyed Sadegh Hatefi, Rana Azadivar, Arash Falahat Pishe, Hamidreza Tajdolat. (Farsi, Arabic, Hebrew dialogue)

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  1. waseem yaseen says:

    can anyone please let me know where can i get this movie either online or dvd? i would appreciate that

  2. YASMEEN says:

    ASSALAM ALAIKUM ………….CAN U TELL WHEN THE MOVIE WILL RELEASE IN INDIA….MY KIND REQUEST………….EAGERLY WAITING TO WATCH…………….PLZZZZZZZZZZ

  3. Armin says:

    The film was excellent. Please don’t take ideological positions against it.

  4. Bardia M says:

    Noah was so bad though

  5. saeid says:

    I didn’t like this review. I just saw the movie and it was really good. and I think you should see the other 2 movies for some parts of your review.

  6. Ali says:

    prejudiced review…

  7. Nolan Tarantino says:

    Dull? Seriously your reviews are a laughter and just a waste of time. It was beautifully made but the editing was really bad.

  8. chiniquy says:

    This seems to be another effort by misguided Muslims to portray the Noble Prophet Muhammed in the same light as Christians have been erroneously portraying the Prophet Jesus.

    They want non Muslims to see him as some type of miracle worker performing all kinds of magical miracles.

    The Prophet Muhammed himself said, “my only miracle is the Revelation of the Holy Qur’an, given to me by my Lord-Creator.”

  9. It is good to not be a Muslim. Every single angelic angel that people saw said fear not.The supposed angelic angel that Muhammad saw did not say that. Don’t you see something amiss? The being Muhammad saw was a liar. Satan is the liar. Muslims learned what they learned from the liar Satan creating ISIS .

    • ken says:

      ahh whatever. isis isis, who cares about them. I know muslims don’t. it always seems others do. Muslims don’t even acknowledge them.

    • G says:

      LOL. artiewhitefox, did you take a long time to write that? loool. Please tell me you just slapped the keyboard in the hope to write something articulate? But instead posted line after line of something more akin to what you find on the pavement on a Saturday night out in town.

      Without a single notion of what you are saying you make sweeping statements nearly on par with Donald Trump, are you Donald Trump in disguise? Anyway thank you for your comment, I haven’t laughed so hard since the west came out and told the world they couldn’t find WMD’s in Iraq.

      Oh and by the way, ISSI’s, the Taliban and yours truly Bin Laden, all the good work of the good ol’ USA. So take a bow, you satan worshiping moron.

  10. MustafaShag says:

    Or as Jesus said – ‘Beware false prophets’.

  11. ali says:

    look i gave birth to a light bulb

  12. Mary says:

    you know yourself that all these accusations against the prophet of humanity, honesty and love are nonsense and bullshit!

  13. Carter Devin says:

    oooh amazing how someone thought of using a stedi-cam for Mohammad’s point of view – bullshit. This was done already; along with the title Mohammand: Messenger of God. It was in 1977 and produced and directed by Mustapha Akkaad who became known for producing the original Halloween. His movie about Mohammad was scorned by the Islamic community. So much so when it opened in NYC the theater was taken hostage, by guess who – yeah Islamic “extremists”. Yep, back in 77′. The film’s producer/director decided to pull the film from circulation. Fast forward about 25 years and the man was killed by an explosion at a mid-eastern hotel, by his own people. Although not a target, just a causality
    Ironic.

  14. Cindy says:

    Little disappointed at the comment comparing the movie, which is flogged in this review, to 1950s Hollywood biblical movies. I’m assuming she means movies like Ben Hur? They were epics!! Critically acclaimed and incredibly profitable for their time. Bad comparison.

  15. hadis says:

    what a amaizing movie wowwww

  16. Farshid says:

    The true Islam is the one that is implemented by ISIS, Al-Qaeda,Taliban, etc. I’m so happy that Iranians are leaving Islam in mass numbers. We, Iranians, need to make movies on our own history.

    • Sal U. Llyod says:

      What a stupid remark.

    • That is right. ISIS is one of the mature islamic beasts born of Lucifer who is Satan who is Allah who hates the Lord of glory – King of kings hating this verse and the entire bible : Romans 13:10: Love worketh no ill to his neighbour: therefore love is the fulfilling of the law. KJV Cambridge edition bible.

      • I am no fundamentalist. I say the truth that cuts both ways. I am not connected to any religious name. I am no respecter of persons or names. I see the spirit. I cannot help you with you being unable to see Lucifer talking in the Quran that is not like the bible trying to be like God in a desperate way. People who are half dead in a drunken stupor should be able to tell the difference between the bible and the Quran. Who the Heck do you think is trying to communicate in the Quran? Faith is not a belief system. Why need faith when God is seen as he is as light without no shadow in turning seeing the end of death floating up into the air to meet Jesus?

        Romans 13:10: Love worketh no ill to his neighbour: therefore love is the fulfilling of the law.
        These laws prepare people for another land that is not at this time seen.

      • ken says:

        Jesus wasn’t a hating man, or someone who looked to pick a fight with others. and yeah 99.9 of muslims around the world agree with you that isis is trash, a beast of some sort. I think if Jesus was here today he would be very disappointed by many of his so called “followers”.

      • Masked Marvyl says:

        Whoa, take it down a notch there, Artie; I think Islam and all other religions are phony constructs too, but let’s not sound the same as the fundamentalist tribal cults we are criticizing…..

      • Masked Marvyl:Best for all to accspt all and I mean all that I say. Satan has his words in the Muslims book.Satan in the minds of pastors and priests had them ignore love works no ill and bear one anothers burdens. That is why we have the laws we have arresting people, jailing people, killing people and evicting people saying, this is a godly nation. Can people be telling the truth?

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