Controversial Iranian film on Prophet Muhammad set for premiere

Controversial Iranian film on Prophet Muhammad set for premiere
3 min read
27 Aug, 2015
Blog: Iranian film on the life of Prophet Muhammad sparks controversy ahead of premiere due its depiction of the prophet, which Muslims and Islamic institutions strongly oppose.
Director Majid Majidi hopes the film will improve Islam's "violent image" [AFP]

The Iranian multi-million dollar-budget movie Muhammad: The Messenger of God is set for its premiere on Thursday, amid criticism from Islamic institutions and other Muslims, who oppose any depiction of the Prophet.

In 2012, during earlier stages of the project, the Saudi foreign ministry criticised the film, saying that Iranian filmmakers were mixing Islam with Persian traditions that had nothing to do with the religion.

Egypt's Grand Imam of al-Azhar, Sheikh Ahmed al-Tayyeb, also made similar remarks, saying he was against any film depicting the Prophet, as this would "belittle his spiritual and religious status".

Renowned Iranian director Majid Majidi, who directed the long-awaited film, told AFP that he hoped the film would improve Islam's "violent image".

In Majidi's opinion, extremists such as the Islamic State group are the ones who have "have stolen the name of Islam".

In the Western world, "an incorrect interpretation of Islam has emerged that shows a violent image of Islam, and we believe it has no link whatsoever" to the religion, he said.

Egyptian film critic Tarek al-Shennawi told Egyptian TV channel al-Assema last week that people should not judge the film before they saw it, calling on cinema-goers to give it a chance.

Shennawi added that, despite being more strict about depictions of the Prophet and his companions, Saudi Arabia had produced TV shows depicting four of the Prophet's companions. The same happened in Egypt, where a 1958 film depicted one of the Prophet's companions - despite the opposition of al-Azhar, the country's highest Islamic authority.

A technical solution

Addressing the concerns of Muslims who oppose the film, Majidi looked for alternative ways of showing the Prophet, and chose not to picture his face at all.

An incorrect interpretation of Islam has emerged that shows a violent image of Islam
- Director Majid Majidi

"To have the hero throughout the movie and not show his face once is a big challenge," he said.

Majidi and his Italian Oscar-winning cinematographer Vittorio Storaro came up with a special technique.

"We customised a steadicam especially for the Prophet. Wherever we have the Prophet in the film, we see through his POV [point of view], even in his childhood," Majidi explained.

"Everyone is curious to see the prophet in the film, but you cannot see his face," he said, adding that the Prophet could only seen by his profile, or with his back to the camera.

Iran's most expensive film

The 171-minute film, featuring top Iranian actors, was shot in the remote Iranian village of Allahyar, where the production company built a replica of the Kaaba shrine in Saudi Arabia. The project cost an estimated $40 million, which is believed to be the country's most expensive film to date.

The film is the first part of a trilogy on the life of Prophet Muhammad. It only depicts events before his birth and up to his teenage years. Part two will cover his life from his teenage years until the age of 40, when he became a Prophet, according to the Quran, while part three will cover his life from his 40s onwards.

It was initially scheduled to premiere in more than 130 theatres across the country on Wednesday, before being postponed for 24 hours for "technical reasons", a spokesperson told AFP.

"It will premiere tomorrow," he said, yesterday.

The movie will also be screened at Montreal's World Film Festival. 

According to Iranian media, the film's audio track was incompatible with the existing sound systems in Iranian theatres, forcing the postponement to make time for changes.