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Saudi Arabia’s First Arabic Release Is Controversial Islamic Epic ‘The Message’

After Saudi Arabia recently broke its 35-year ban on cinema with Hollywood titles such as “Black Panther,” “Isle of Dogs” and “A Quiet Place,” the kingdom is now set for its first release of an Arabic film, the 4K restored version of controversial 1976 prophet Muhammad epic “The Message.”

Helmed by Syrian-American film producer and director Moustapha Akkad, “The Message” was an ambitious but failed attempt to bridge cultures with an origins-of-Islam narrative. The film was initially backed by, among others, the Saudi government of the time, but Saudi authorities subsequently turned against the film’s production as hard-line clerics gained more influence and the country took the ultra-conservative turn that caused movie theaters in the kingdom to be banned in the early 1980s.

“The Message,” which was nominated for a best music Oscar in 1977, was made in two versions: one in English, toplining Anthony Quinn and Irene Papas, and one in Arabic with some of the biggest Arab stars of the day, such as late Egyptian actor Abdullah Gheith and Syria’s Mouna Wasef.

Both versions have now been cleared by Saudi censors and will be released Thursday by producer Trancas Entertainment and distributor Front Row in the VOX Riyadh Park multiplex in the Saudi capital. Negotiations are underway for “The Message” to also be released in AMC theaters in the kingdom.

“My father Moustapha didn’t have the chance to see [‘The Message’s’ theatrical release] fulfilled in his lifetime, but I know he would have been very proud,” Trancas’ Malek Akkad said in a statement. “This is a tribute to him. He wanted to share his love of this culture and the important lessons of Islam and ‘The Message’ to everyone. Now, in a time when the world needs it most, his dream will come alive.”

During the ’70s, the film’s release struggled in both the Arab and Western worlds, basically for the same reason. Representing Muhammad is risky since Islamic tradition generally forbids any direct representation of religious figures. Even though that was arguably not the case with “The Message,” this aspect of the film lent itself to being misconstrued.

The U.S. release was jeopardized by action taken in 1977 in Washington by a splinter group of the Nation of Islam, prompted by the mistaken belief that Anthony Quinn played Muhammad in the film. 

Ironically, from the 1970s on, “The Message” has circulated widely in the Arab world on home video and became a beloved staple played to educate children about Islam in many Arab households during Ramadan.

The restored versions of the film world-premiered last December at the Dubai Film Festival. It has since been submitted to censorship boards in the United Arab Emirates, Morocco, Egypt, Iraq, Lebanon and Ethiopia, and will be released in these countries by Front Row on Thursday, just as in Saudi Arabia.

The Saudi stamp of approval “was of utmost importance to us, given that the kingdom is the cradle of Islam,” Front Row chief Gianluca Chakra said in the statement. “The Saudi authorities allowed the film to pass, and this in turn opened the door to the rest of the region,” he added.

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