Culture

‘The Message’ delivered 40 years on

BEIRUT: Film restoration seems relatively free of politics. Cinema is a relatively young form and cleaning grimy celluloid is innocent of the dangers that stalk older, more material arts. Witness the elation that greeted the restoration of “Al Momia,” the 1969 art house gem of Egyptian writer-director Shadi Abdel Salam, overseen by Martin Scorsese’s World Cinema Project. “The picture was extremely difficult to see from the ’70s onward,” Scorsece wrote of “Al Momia,” (“The Mummy”) in 2009.

“I managed to screen a 16mm print which, like all the prints I’ve seen since, had gone magenta. Yet I still found it an entrancing and oddly moving experience, as did many others,” the academy award-winning director added.

“Past and present, desecration and veneration, the urge to conquer death and the acceptance that we, and all we know, will turn to dust ... a seemingly massive theme that [Abdel Salam] somehow manages to address, even embody with his images. Are we obliged to plunder our heritage and everything our ancestors have held sacred in order to sustain ourselves for the present and the future? What exactly is our debt to the past?”

Beirut filmgoers are nowadays able to revisit another moment from this region’s cinema history, thanks to the theatrical release of a state-of-the-art digital restoration of Moustapha Akkad’s 1976 feature “Al-Risala” (“The Message”).

Overseen by Malek Akkad, the filmmaker’s son, the 4K digital restoration of “The Message” isn’t of the same order as the work on “Al Momia.” The younger Akkad told this paper in May 2017 that – though he did take advantage of digital technology to excise a few flaws from the print (like hair on the lens) and to make the score more percussive – the print of “Al-Risala” wasn’t restored because it was damaged.

This restoration is effectively a high-resolution digital copy of the film print. A significant reason for making it has been to facilitate online distribution.

“With SVOD [Streaming or Subscription Video on Demand] platforms on the rise,” Front Row entertainment’s Gianluca Chakra told The Hollywood Reporter in December 2017. “This important film that is traditional viewing for billions of Muslim families during Eid can finally be accessed in every home – only this time reaching a new and non-Muslim audience, hopefully changing the perception of Islam.”

For non-professional viewers, then, the image quality of the restored “Al-Risala” may not be noticeably different from that of a DVD.

The real opportunity this restoration affords is that it’s brought Akkad’s television-bound film back to theaters.

Any controversy that might surround the 4K restoration is dwarfed by the original. Initially titled “Muhammad, Messenger of God,” Akkad’s movie recounts the foundation story of Islam – from the angel Jibril’s first revelation to the Meccan elite’s oppression of early converts, from the Hijra to the Meccan leaderhip’s willing submission to Islam.

Not unlike today, Islamic opinion then frowned upon figurative depictions of the Prophet, so it’s not surprising that “Al-Risala” caused a stir, both during production (filming locations had to shift mid-stream from Morocco to Libya) and at the time of its debut. (Anyone glancing at the film’s release dates on IMDB will find it premiered in London in July 1976 and didn’t have a theatrical release in the Arab world until June 2018.)

Akkad clearly hadn’t sought controversy. He’d had Islamic scholars approve its narrative. As preliminary intertitles roll, it’s equally evident that “The Message” is very much an artifact of its time. The story was vetted, audiences are reassured, by the scholars of both Egypt’s Al-Azhar and Lebanon’s Supreme Islamic Shia Council. With Iran’s Islamic revolution still three years in the future, it seems scholars in Pahlavi Iran weren’t consulted; the Muslim World League withheld its stamp of approval.

In its visual language, Akkad’s film pays homage to the conventions of historical drama circulating in Hollywood in the 1970s with villains and heroes, oppression and vindication.

Skilled in whipping up audience sympathy for the underdog, Hollywood epics that set out to dramatize stories from the Jewish and Christian tradition for family audiences – Cecil B. DeMille’s “The Ten Commandments,” say, or Stevens and Lean’s “The Greatest Story Ever Told” – were solid models for Akkad to emulate. It is this visual homage to Hollywood that, in part, makes Akkad’s such an ecumenical narrative.

Though Muhammad remains outside the frame throughout, audiences who’d seen DeMille’s movie would likely have watched sequences showing the mouth of the cave where Jibril addressed The Prophet and recalled Moses’ revelation on Sinai.

When Mecca’s leadership set out to punish the weakest among the early Muslim converts, tableaux of limp, half-naked bodies hanging from stakes would have echoed film depictions of the crucifixion.

Like its genre forebears, the oppression in “Al-Risala” is complemented by righteous battle sequences. Thanks to the expansive locations and cinematography (credited to Said Baker, Jack Hildyard and Ibrahim Salem), the set pieces inspired by Islamic tradition are as engaging on the big screen as any of its Hollywood predecessors.

The film was released in English and Arabic versions, and the villainy is anchored by solid character actors. For English-speaking audiences that means Syrian-American baritone Michael Ansara as Meccan leader Abu Sufyan and Greek superstar Irene Papas as his wife Hind – who depicts her character as a Lady Macbeth figure.

The film necessarily departs from its genre models because it had to absent the narrative’s principal characters. As noted, the Prophet doesn’t enter the frame (only his camel does), though Akkad does allow the camera to assume Muhammad’s perspective from time to time, usually while one of the principals is talking with him.

Those who were closest to Muhammad are also absent, including his successors Abu Bakr and Ali – though Ali’s sword, Zulfaqar, does project into the frame.

In another departure from genre tropes, villains aren’t killed in a climactic battle. They embrace Islam.

Equally striking for those accustomed to pop culture depictions of Islam in the 21st-century are the principles Akkad’s protagonists espouse.

“A man who goes to bed with a full belly while his neighbor is hungry,” one character intones in a fairly typical aphorism, “is not a Muslim.”

Statements like this from the Quran and Hadith were frequently invoked by left-of-center academics wanting to make Islam seem less alien to an increasingly secular population.

These sentiments are no less Muslim today than they were then. What’s changed is the world which Akkad’s representation of Islam is addressing.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on July 06, 2018, on page 16.

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