Also known as The Message, this historical epic about the creation of Islam is handsomely mounted but of little interest to anyone except true believers—while it’s not a bad film, per se, it’s so reverent that it provides far more detail than casual viewers might want, and far less insight than serious viewers would need to justify the investment of three hours. Mohammad, Messenger of God also has one of the most unusual storytelling problems in the history of religious cinema: Out of respect for a Muslim custom, Mohammad is never shown onscreen. As a result, Mohammad, Messenger of God is a biopic about a person we neither hear nor see. Thanks to producer-director Moustapha Akkad’s resourceful approach, this isn’t a fatal storytelling flaw—Akkad uses narration and scenes of characters addressing the unseen Mohammad to suggest the prophet’s presence. Yet the inability to depict the character around whom the story revolves raises legitimate questions about why Mohammad, Messenger of God is so long.
In any event, this is a good-looking movie with impressive production values, and composer Maurice Jarre contributes a stirring score in the vein of the music he composed for another desert epic, Laurence of Arabia (1962). Set six centuries after Christ’s death, the movie begins with the illiterate Mohammad emerging from a spiritual retreat in the mountains outside Mecca. He returns to town having received a message from God, who has imbued Mohammad with the ability to read and write. Because Mecca is a major trading hub in which the worship of hundreds of gods is practiced, Mohammad’s message threatens powerful people including tribal leader Abu-Sofyan (Michael Ansara). Meanwhile, Mohammad gains charismatic supporters, including his uncle, Hamza (Anthony Quinn). For the first hour of the picture, Mohammad’s following increases even as the powers-that-be escalate their violent opposition to his teachings. Eventually, Mohammad leads his people on a 250-mile pilgrimage to find religious sanctuary until another message from God compels the group to reclaim Mecca.
Although Mohammad, Messenger of God was clearly a labor of love for Akkad, the picture suffers from problems that often plague sincere religious movies. Actors don’t so much inhabit roles as pose in ornate period dress while reciting stilted dialogue that’s written in a faux-classical style. So, while some scenes are powerful, notably the willing conversion of a black slave to Islam despite great personal risk, the film is more educational in nature than entertaining. It’s also awkward that Quinn has top billing, even though he only appears (fleetingly) during the middle hour of the picture. Most of the heavy lifting is done by Ansara, whose sonorous speaking voice suits the role of a regal leader, and by Damien Thomas, who tries to imbue his characterization of Mohammad’s adopted son Zayd with sensitivity.
Questions of whether Mohammad, Messenger of God accurately depicts events or fairly characterizes the nature of the Islamic faith are for others to explore, though it’s perhaps unsurprising that the U.S. release of the film sparked controversy. The fact that Lybian dictator Muammar Gaddafi bankrolled the film did not curry much favor in America, and a bloody siege on three buildings in Washington, D.C., by radicals who, among other things, demanded the destruction of Akkad’s movie further tainted the picture’s debut. The movie enjoyed a much warmer reception internationally, both in this English-language version and in an Arabic-language version that Akkad shot simultaneously.
Mohammad, Messenger of God: FUNKY