Grade: BMessage, The (1976)

Director: Moustapha Akkad

Stars: Anthony Quinn, Irene Papas, Michael Ansara

Release Company: Anchor Bay

MPAA Rating: PG

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Moustapha Akkad: The Message


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Moslem Prays in the Desert His Face Towards Mecca While His Camel Waits Patiently
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Hollywood balked at making a movie that refuses to put the main character on the screen and deals with the religion that mainstream Americans are least familiar with. Therefore, Islamic producer/director Moustapha Akkad put together The Message (a.k.a. Mohammed: The Messenger of God) as a labor of love so that the truth about Islam would finally be told through film. Remaining within the strict teachings of Islam, Akkad finds ways to tell the story of Mohammed without photographing the prophet-founder or any of the central figures of the Faith, like Ali. And it works. Even more amazing is the fact that Akkad's project received the approval and blessing of Islamic officials! (The Lebanese film received approval in accuracy and fidelity from the High Islamic Congress of the Shiat in Lebanon and from the University of Al-Azhar in Cairo)

The closest that the camera comes to showing Ali on screen are images of Ali's camel and of his powerful sword before battle whereas the camera itself "becomes" Mohammed in scenes where characters address the prophet. At those times the camera may look away from an enemy or may �stand up� to address his uncle Hamza (Anthony Quinn) silently—it would be considered sacrilegious for the prophet to speak on celluloid.

For American audiences who think these rules too restrictive, consider how films have actually secularized Judaism and Christianity and helped perpetuate misconceptions about their prophet-founders. Anyone who has seen The Ten Commandments will undoubtedly begin to picture Charlton Heston as the man who spoke to the burning bush and brought down the laws of God from Mount Sinai. For years Hollywood has perpetuated the myth of European Renaissance artists by continuing to portray Christ as a blue eyed Caucasian with light brown hair. Anyone thinking that this is an authentic physical portrayal is burying his head in the sands of the Judean Desert--mainstream Hollywood has consistently followed the Anglicized tradition because its primary audience won't accept a more accurate depiction. Is it possible that Islam is far more advanced on this issue since they maintain that a physical portrayal of the prophet (including His voice) detracts from the spiritual message?

The most essential spiritual teaching from the film is repeated a number of times: "There is no god but God, and Mohammed is the Messenger." All other teachings about equality of rich and poor, rights for women, and brotherhood derive their power from the recognition that Mohammed has obtained His knowledge from God. The film effectively addresses the main questions that people have about the prophet—how can an illiterate man come down from the mountain near Mecca blazing with such powerful "poetry."

People who wonder how any prophet of God could lead an army into battle may understand Mohammed's situation better after seeing The Message. Patterns repeat themselves, for similar questions were posed of Moses, who had murdered men in righteous anger. Ideas of rebelling against the traditional religion have always surrounded the prophets and martyrdom has always resulted. People of the 7th century Arabian Desert were brutal, and the camera only hints at this when a Moslem is about to be cut open by either looking away or showing vultures circling overhead.

Although the film illustrates basic Islamic tenants like the call to prayer and Hajj (pilgrimage), Akkad's film focuses on the documented historical origins of Islam. Following a brief opening sequence where three messengers split up to deliver Mohammed's proclamation to Byzantium, Egypt, and Persia, we are thrust into Mecca of approximately 610 A.D. where pagans worship some 300 gods at the Ka'bah and where merchants actually rule the community. Mohammed has been isolated in the mountains for three days receiving revelations from God, and a handful of believers initially meet secretly before openly proclaiming His monotheistic message to the locals.

The rebels are martyred and must flee. Due to Mohammed's strong standing in Mecca, He is able to remain while his respected family lives but must flee to Medina after His uncle passes away. This marks the beginning of the Islamic calendar—the Hegira. The film straightforwardly presents significant events in the history of Islam—the protection that a spider's web affords Muhammad, the battles of Badr and Uhud, and the return pilgrimage to Mecca with thousands of followers. Such stories are well known to the 700 million plus Moslems in the world, but are fresh and new to most non-Muslims. For so many to remain ignorant of the true teachings of the Qu'ran is a shortcoming that The Message attempts to remedy; however, it never received the kind of widespread viewership of more entertaining Hollywood fare like Star Wars or Titanic, or even religious epics like Ben Hur or The Ten Commandments. But it's far more entertaining exposure to Islam than Joel Gilbert's 2007 Farewell Israel, a 145 minute made for educational TV documentary in PowerPoint style lecture style.

The one star to attract attention for the English speaking version (there is also a longer Arabic speaking version cast with different leading actors) is Anthony Quinn as the "bad ass" desert dwelling Arab, who leads Mohammed's followers confidently into battle with quips like, "They outnumber us, so I'd say it's a fair fight." Quinn's charisma carries the film while he's on screen, but he's no cheesy Charlton Heston who looms larger than his subject matter. The best known actress, Irene Papas (who memorably played the Minister's wife in Z) attempts to overact with an overwrought grieving scene and subsequent call for revenge while draped in a flapping turquoise outfit in battle, but her scenes are relatively minor. Most of the cast consists of competent character actors, and the director avoided getting well known personalities—according to the IMDB, he rejected Muhammad Ali's offer to play early disciple Bilal for fear that it would smack of commercialism. Perhaps, but Ali's fame would have created a much larger audience for the film and exposed more people to basic Islamic history, just as he brought more publicity to the Black Muslims.

Such commercial concerns didn't bother Akkad when he later produced Halloween and all of its sequels, but The Message obviously was a far more personal project for him and fears of money "corrupting" his idealistic project must have been on his mind. The 3 hour epic serves as the best celluloid introduction to Islam that you can find, and people from a Judeo-Christian background will likely be surprised to find numerous parallels to their own religion, including Moslem ideas about progressive revelation that establish Abraham, Noah, Moses, and Christ as previous prophets of God.

Shot on the Sahara Desert on location in Morocco and Libya (with use of the Libyan military for the large battle scenes), the production values are high, but the film is no artistic match with the cinematography and acting of Lawrence of Arabia. The primary objective remains creating a chronicle of Islam's origins that will receive the sanction of Moslem authorities; thus, the film represents a straight forward docu-drama along the lines of the 1979 Jesus film popular with Christian evangelicals.

Imaginative use of the camera to represent the prophet, Quinn's acting, and the fact that this is the only substantial film about Mohammed and Islam makes Akkad's film worthwhile viewing. Considering recent interest caused by current events, more people should put The Message (Mohammed: The Messenger of God) on their rental list.

 


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