There are plenty of movies that depict the origins of Judaism and Christianity. But there are also a few movies that touch on the origins of Islam. One such film is playing in Iran right now, and another will premiere in Qatar a few weeks from now.
The Iranian film, Muhammad: The Messenger of God, opened to sold-out theatres in late August. Although it is reportedly about three hours long, the film depicts just the first 12 years of Mohammed’s life — and because some Muslims object to visual depictions of the prophets, the film never shows Mohammed’s face itself.
Director Majid Majidi — whose Children of Heaven was the first Iranian movie to be nominated for the Oscar for best foreign language film back in 1999 (it lost to Life Is Beautiful) — explained his approach to the new film in an interview last year:
The Oscar-nominated Majidi added, “the film starts with [the prophet’s] adolescence, and childhood is shown through flashbacks. We chose the period before Muhammad became a prophet.” He also said, “this film contains no controversies and no differences between the Shia and the Sunni points of view.”
On the quandary of portraying the prophet’s face, something that is considered illegal in Islam’s tenets, he said “the face of the prophet is not shown in the film. By hiding his face I make it [the character] more intriguing for the viewer.”
The film counts among its crew such Oscar-calibre talents as cinematographer Vittorio Storaro (a winner for Apocalypse Now, Reds and The Last Emperor) and composer A.R. Rahman (who won two awards for Slumdog Millionaire), and the film itself is Iran’s official submission for the foreign-language Oscar this year.1
The film reportedly cost between $30 million and $40 million to produce, making it the most expensive Iranian movie ever by far, and as of a couple weeks ago it had grossed “70 billion rials (roughly $2 million)” in its native Iran. The producers hope to make two sequels that would cover the rest of Mohammed’s life.
Meanwhile, the Doha Film Institute in Qatar has announced that the animated film Bilal — which is based on the life of one of Mohammed’s closest companions — will have its world premiere at the Ajyal Youth Film Festival on December 5.
Bilal was produced in Dubai and is reportedly “the first CG-animated feature to be fully funded and produced in the [Persian] Gulf”.
It tells the story of Bilal Ibn Rabah, a man who was born into slavery and became one of Islam’s earliest converts. He was tortured by his master for refusing to worship idols, until Mohammed sent someone to purchase Bilal and set him free.
Bilal is believed to be the first muezzin (i.e. the person who recites the call to prayer at a mosque). And, because of Bilal’s African background, Wikipedia states that “his respected stature during the birth of Islam is often cited by Muslims as evidence of the importance of pluralism and racial equality in the foundations of the religion.”
Andre Robinson and Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje are providing the voices of young Bilal and old Bilal, respectively. Earlier this year it was also reported that Ian McShane would provide the voice of “a dynamic villain with a high ego” named Umayya.
Presumably that’s the same Umayyah ibn Khalaf who was Bilal’s master and, as such, tortured Bilal for his beliefs. Umayyah was eventually killed in the Battle of Badr by a group of Muslims led by Bilal, though I do not know if the film will cover that.
These are not the first films to be made about Mohammed and the origins of Islam, of course. In 2002, there was an animated film called Muhammad: The Last Prophet, and in 1976 there was The Message, a live-action film starring Anthony Quinn and featuring an Oscar-nominated score by Maurice Jarre. Both of these films also avoided showing Mohammed’s face. (Moustapha Akkad, the director of The Message, went on to produce the Halloween movies. He was killed in a terrorist attack in 2005.)
Other movies about Mohammed have been announced in recent years, though I don’t know how close they’ve come to getting made. In 2008, producer Oscar Zoghbi said he was working on a film called The Messenger of Peace, while in 2009, Lord of the Rings producer Barrie Osborne and the Qatar-based company Alnoor Holdings said they were developing a film about Mohammed which, by 2013, had turned into a series of films — but I don’t think any cameras have started rolling yet.
Here is a trailer for Muhammad: The Messenger of God:
And here is a trailer for Bilal:
1. Incidentally, this is not the first time Storaro has shot a film about the founder of one of the world’s major religions. He was also the DP on Bernardo Bertolucci’s Little Buddha in 1993.