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Review: The Message (1976)

The Message (1976)

Directed by: Moustapha Akkad

Premise: A story of the origin of Islam, following the apostles of Muhammad in their early struggles to establish the religion.

What Works: The Message is an ambitious story, covering decades worth of material and condensing it to a manageable length. The film manages to strike a balance between the intimate personal storylines of Muhammad’s early followers and the epic political and cultural conflicts. Among the interpersonal storylines, there is a lot of time spent on the conflict between Hamza (Anthony Quinn), Mohammad’s uncle and supporter, and Abu Sofyan (Michael Ansara) and his wife Hind (Irene Papas), powerful merchants of Mecca who opposed Mohammad’s message. This is an important and effective component because it links to micro and macro storylines and gives the story a concrete conflict to work through.  The film occasionally uses a narrator to place the viewer in a specific time and place and much of the cinematography uses medium or even handheld shots, especially the early scenes recreating Mecca. The style of the filmmaking gives The Message a documentary look to it that is unique in this genre. The film has an interesting problem in that Islamic tenets forbid pictorial depictions of Muhammad, and the filmmakers have chosen to be respectful towards their subject and follow these rules. They get around this by depicting Muhammad in the film as the fourth wall, or as the camera, and the filmmakers use the camera and the actor’s regard for it to convey a subjective point of view. This pays off because the character takes on a mystical presence in the film.

What Doesn’t: The Message has not aged as well as some other epics and the film is intended as an instructive piece and a recreation of a sacred text. The closest film to match its style would be the 1977 television film Jesus of Nazareth.

DVD extras: Two versions of The Message were shot simultaneously, one with mostly Western actors speaking English and another with Middle Eastern actors speaking Arabic. The Arabic version is slightly longer. The Anchor Bay DVD release includes both versions of the film, a commentary track, and a documentary.

Bottom Line: The Message is good filmmaking, and it is encouraging to watch because it is a religious film that is not designed to proselytize but rather to celebrate the filmmaker’s faith and culture and use the cinema as a way of sharing and communicating with others.

Episode:  #206 (September 28, 2008)