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.