×
You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

Film Review: ‘Muhammad: The Messenger of God’

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

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)

Official Site: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt3921314/

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)

More Film

  • Charlotte Rampling Euphoria

    Berlin Film Festival: Charlotte Rampling to Receive Honorary Golden Bear

    Oscar-nominated actress Charlotte Rampling, whose career has spanned more than 100 film and television roles, will be honored with a special Golden Bear at the upcoming Berlin Film Festival. The fest will also pay homage to Rampling by screening a selection of her work, including Sidney Lumet’s “The Verdict” (1982), Francois Ozon’s “Swimming Pool” (2003) [...]

  • The Sisters Brothers

    France's Lumieres Awards Unveil Nominations

    Jacques Audiard’s “The Sisters Brothers” is nominated for best film and director at the 24th Lumieres Awards, France’s equivalent to the Golden Globes. The Western drama starring Joaquin Phoenix, John C. Reilly and Jake Gyllenhaal world premiered at Venice Film Festival, where it earned Audiard a best director award. More Reviews Film Review: 'Nona' Tallinn [...]

  • CAA to Represent Peter Chan's We

    CAA to Represent Peter Chan's We Pictures

    Creative Artists Agency (CAA) has signed with We Pictures, the production and distribution company founded by Hong Kong-born director and producer Peter Chan Ho-sun. It aims to boost the company’s footprint both in China and abroad. Within China, CAA China will help We Pictures to develop new business partnerships and find new sources of investment [...]

  • Elizabeth Karlsen, Stephen Woolley to Receive

    'Carol' Producers Elizabeth Karlsen, Stephen Woolley to Be Honored by BAFTA

    Elizabeth Karlsen and Stephen Woolley, the producers of such films as “Carol,” “Their Finest” and the recent “Colette” starring Keira Knightley, will receive the Outstanding British Contribution to Cinema Award at the BAFTA Film Awards. The prolific pair run Number 9 Films and have a long list of credits. They will pick up their accolade at [...]

  • BOHEMIAN RHAPSODY

    Korea Box Office: 'Rhapsody' Reclaims Top Spot, Beats ‘Spider-Verse’

    “Bohemian Rhapsody” reclaimed top place at the South Korean box office, overtaking “Default,” after spending two weekends in second place. The Fox release earned $4.38 million from 554,000 admissions for a total of $61.0 million from 7.94 million admissions. In its seventh weekend of release “Rhapsody” accounted for 27% of the weekend box office. CJ [...]

  • China Box Office: ‘Totoro’ Triumphant as

    China Box Office: ‘Totoro’ Surprises as ‘Aquaman’ Defies Newcomers

    “Aquaman” comfortably dominated the Chinese box office for the second weekend. Although it dropped 47% in its second week, the latest Warner Bros.’ DC Comics title again accounted for the majority of all cinema business nationwide. The watery superhero movie earned $53.9 million, according to data from exhibition and distribution consultancy Artisan Gateway. It played [...]

  • Aquaman 2018

    'Aquaman' Crosses $250 Million at Foreign Box Office

    Things are going swimmingly at the box office for “Aquaman” as the Warner Bros.’ superhero flick hits another major milestone overseas. James Wan’s take on the ruler of the seven seas just passed $250 million internationally, and a weekend haul of $126.4 million from 43 territories brings its foreign tally to $261.3 million. “Aquaman” — [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content