In these troubled times, Judge Bill Gibron can think of no better education in the origins of Islam than this fascinating, if flawed, look at the Prophet Mohammed and his teachings.
Our review of The Message (1977) (Blu-ray), published January 11th, 2014, is also available.
The story of Islam.
Several hundred years after the death of Christ, Mecca is a thriving merchant town where local tribes come to trade and to worship. Housed in a giant structure in the middle of town are over 300 gods representing the religious beliefs of the entire region. As the city fathers fan the flames of commerce and conspire to keep family stock holds intact, word comes from the younger generation of a young man named Mohammed and his new religious calling. After spending three days in a cave where he was approached by the angel Gabriel, Mohammed wants it known that there is only one God—not hundreds—and that people should repent and live by the laws of the new faith, Islam.
Naturally, the officials of Mecca find this most offensive. They cannot make money off of a single deity and, besides, Mohammed is a minor man in the city, an illiterate with some fleeting family connections, but little else. It's not long, though, before his converts start causing trouble, trying to preach and spread the word. Naturally, they are driven from Mecca and, under the watchful eye of Mohammed, Islam's importance in the area grows. It's not long before the Muslim faithful are settled, but there is still one leftover order of business—the freeing of Mecca. With his men behind him and God as his guide, Mohammed need only supply The Message and the faithful will follow on a pilgrimage to avenge their holy city.
The Message is really two movies in one. Actually, it's more like four. With an astounding history that includes protests, death threats, two different versions (one for Western, one for Arabic audiences), and a terrifyingly touchy subject at its core—the coming of Islam and the enlightenment of the Prophet Mohammed—it's hard to imagine why producer/director Moustapha Akkad wanted to go through with this project, all personal religious conviction aside. Since the Koran and Islamic law forbid images of Mohammed, his closest family members, or any prophet to be re-created, Akkad had a monumental task on his shoulders. Indeed, how could he portray the life and times of the central figure in his singular religious narrative while making him an ancillary aspect of the film? The answer was achieved awkwardly. When necessary, Mohammed would be "spoken to" by the characters, the audience POV standing in for the influential man. Other times, people in the parameters of his influence would answer for him. There were also times when Mohammed was placed in crowd scenes and covered up by numerous individuals so that, while present in the plot, he was invisible to the eye. All throughout The Message this conceit is stretched out to its thinnest, most outlandish possibilities. Still, Akkad does manage to make the Prophet a viable entity without ever violating the mandates of his religion.
An "invisible" Mohammed is actually the least of The Message's problems. First and foremost is the aforementioned duality of the narrative. Unlike The Passion of the Christ, where Mel Gibson is dead set on illustrating the last hours of Jesus, Akkad is more interested in mixing God with an equal amount of Cecil B. DeMille extravagance. Matching time is therefore given to the story of Mecca, how it came to be a trading hub—and idol storage area—for numerous Arab tribes. Indeed, we learn far too much about family disagreements, marital laws, financial remuneration, and ancient politics and not enough about Mohammed and his upbringing. Most of early Mecca refers to the Prophet as an imbecile and illiterate, and for anyone who is not used to having their deity defamed, this may come like a hard pious pill to swallow. Akkad is obviously using this approach to show how the Messenger's words transcended his modest trappings. It still feels inflammatory, whatever the reason. Then there is the overacting presence of Irene Papas. Lacing her line readings with more venom than a desert python, she spits her indignation at the camera, doing very little to engage or incite us. Among the many other out-of-place Western faces (and accents), she is the most obvious and obnoxious. Anthony Quinn manages all right, if only because he seems decent and dignified even when he's looking on in quiet resolve.
Once the movie moves away from its Ten Commandment crassness and explains the actual tenets of Islam, The Message becomes a mesmerizing experience. As in the original, silent version of The King of Kings, we witness the building of a faith from the believers on up. There are several sensational scenes where Mohammed's followers argue over the basic beliefs in their newfound faith, and those unfamiliar with the truth (or blinded by the fundamentalist free-for-all that grabs headlines in modern Islam) will be substantially surprised at how close those ideals are to Christianity. There is even a scene where the Koran is quoted to convince a Christian king to let Mohammed's people stay in his kingdom and the eloquence of the words and their overall meaning are very moving. Indeed, for anyone who thinks that Islam is a religion of war and wickedness, The Message will provide the path to proper enlightenment. Just like Jesus has his ultra-conservative religious right to deal with, Mohammed has been deemed responsible for a faction of radicals who quote the Koran as the foundation for their reign of terror.
At three hours, this movie is awfully long. It spends too much time in epic battles, its cast of thousands running across the desert-like escapees from a doctrine-based Lawrence of Arabia. In addition, all the scenes of dancing and dining are pointless. They exist to make the Mecca merchants seem even more vile and reprehensible, but don't give us any additional understanding of Islam. Certainly, Akkad was hobbled by providence as to what he could do, but there is just too much ancillary Arabesque in this movie. The Message could have easily been trimmed by 30 or more minutes and none of Mohammed's teachings would have been touched. Indeed, what Akkad could have done is give us more modern context. Even though the movie was made in the mid-1970s, the growing influence of Muslim theocracies was causing concern among politicians and pundits. What the director could have done was something similar to the scene where Mohammed's adopted son spells out the Islamic doctrine of war (basically, fight when your opponent gives you reason to). By showing how the radicals violate these laws and how modern Muslims resolve their policy issues with their faith would have been fascinating. Spike Lee did a little of it in Malcolm X. The Message should have scuttled the biblical-epic overkill and stuck with the stuff that makes sense—the foundation and teachings of the Koran.
Anchor Bay does a nice, if not perfect job, with the digital transfer of the title. The Message was originally shot as a pure Panavision production, massive widescreen image taking up an original theatrical aspect ratio of 2.35:1. However, for some reason, the English-speaking presentation is offered in a strange, pan-and-scan anamorphic transfer. The 1.77:1 looks impressive, that is, until you see the side-to-side glide of the optical printer trying to capture the entire composition. Overall, the colors are vibrant and the details dense, but the lack of a true OAR is a tad disconcerting. Similarly, the Dolby Digital Stereo 2.0 sound is nothing to celebrate.
As for added content, the DVD of The Message contains some very interesting elements. First off, Anchor Bay offers the alternate Arabic version of the film on a second disc. Fleshed out by an additional 40 minutes and spoken completely in the tongue of the region, Westerners will marvel at the true original image and differing cast, while wondering just what in the world is going on. The differing version is not subtitled, nor is Akkad's accompanying commentary. The first disc contains a 45-minute "making of" that is very thorough about the trials and tribulations of the production, including the reasons behind making two movies simultaneously. We even get the opportunity to see the differences between them in several key scene highlights. Akkad also offers up an equally thrilling commentary that provides more insight into the cinematic choices made and the religious fervor he faced.
Perhaps the saddest element of this entire production is that Akkad died shortly after this DVD was released. He and his daughter were part of a wedding party that was destroyed by a terrorist bomb in November 2005. The irony, of course, is so obvious it's nauseating. Here is a man who made one of the most respectful and insightful looks into the origins of Islam ever and his life may have ended at the hands of a fundamentalist. Hopefully The Message will be how he is remembered—and not for his unnecessary, paradoxical death.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Anchor Bay
• "The Making Of An Epic -- Mohammed, The Messenger of God: Behind the Scenes Documentary"
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