Tuesday, March 29, 2011

The Message

Ar Risalah; drama, Lebanon/ Libya/ Kuwait/ Morocco/ UK, 1977; D: Moustapha Akkad, S: Damien Thomas, Michael Forest, Irene Papas, Anthony Quinn, Michael Ansara, Johnny Sekka

In 610 AD, Mecca is a city of backward tradition with people who gain profit by worshiping hundreds of gods, kill a "surplus" of baby girls and have slaves. However, one day, while meditating in cave Hira, an ordinary man, Muhammad, had a vision of Angel Gabriel who gave him the message about the real God. He preaches noble wisdom, i.e. that women should have equal rights as men and that the strong should not oppress the weak, which causes a following, among them by his uncle Abu Hamza and adopted son Zaid. Due to persecution, some of Muhammad's followers found refuge under Ethiopia's Christian king. Finally, all Muslim followers fled to Medina. They won in the battle of Badr, but lost against the Meccans in the battle of Uhud. Still, a truce was signed. Slowly, little by little, Mecca converted to Islam and Muhammad returned to his home. He died in 632.

There are thousands of films about the life of Jesus Christ, yet for the longest time a movie about Muhammad evaded the big screens for one simple, yet aggravating fact - according to Muslim tradition, the visual depiction of the prophet is forbidden, since he wanted to avoid to be treated as an idol. Nonetheless, in 1977, director Moustapha Akkad managed to make a rare movie adaptation with "The Message". This movie seems at times like "The Man Who Wasn't There" - in order to respect the tradition, Muhammad nor his wives, daughters and sons-in-law are never shown on screen, nor are their voices heard. Even though this may seem like an example of a story about a hero without a hero, "The Message" still managed to bring its point across about the true values of humanity and spirituality in Islam, far away from the Taliban, Mutaween, Burqa and other distorted-perverted extremist versions of the pure message. Some of the ideas chosen to avoid showing Muhammad are quite inventive (for instance, when Angel Gabriel gives him the message, the whole screen is in black because they are in a dark cave; when people talk to him they look into the camera's POV or simply repeat what he said for him: "He said, even if you would give me the Sun in one hand, and the Moon in the other, I would still not differ from the message of God"...), giving at the same time a rather good history lesson.

There are numerous interesting scenes present that challenge the cliche perspective of Islam by the West - for instance, due to persecutions, Muhammad's followers find shelter in Ethiopia, where they explain the Christian king about their religion. After he heard them, he approaches one of them, draws a small line on the sand with his scepter and says: "The difference between you and me is no bigger than this line." In another scene, an older couple is frightened after their statue of a god is broken, but Muhammad's follower calms them by saying: "How could this god have protected you when he wasn't even able to protect himself?" With a running time of 3 hours, "The Message" is slightly overlong and overstretched, whereas an occasionally conventional scene did not help either; on the plus side, Anthony Quinn is again in good shape as Hamza, whereas especially touching is the almost ironic twist of faith when Khalid, one of the main army commanders who fought ruthlessly against Muslims, slowly starts hanging around with them, fascinated by their inner peace, observing them from the distance, until the suddenly has a change of heart and becomes Muhammad's follower himself. Despite omissions and few heavy handed moments, "The Message" is noble and honest little movie.


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