Invisible hero Muhammad is talk of movie

October 15, 2004|By Frank Langfitt | Frank Langfitt,SUN STAFF

Imagine that you're a movie director preparing to make a bio-pic. The story has box office potential, with an exotic desert locale, epic sword battles and a compelling hero known to billions.

But there's one hitch: The title character can't actually appear in the movie. You can't even use his voice.

That's the conundrum the makers of Mohammed: The Last Prophet faced in bringing the story of Islam's prophet to the big screen in an animated film that opens next month around the country. Because Islam forbids physical renderings of Muhammad (the preferred spelling) as disrespectful, the prophet can't appear in paintings or sculpture, let alone a cinematic cartoon.

"This was the biggest problem," said Muwaffak Al Harithy, chairman of Badr International, the Saudi-based entertainment company that produced the film. "How do you make a 90-minute movie when you cannot see your main character? How do you get your audience to develop an attachment to him?"

For American Muslims and others, the answer will come Nov. 14, the Muslim holiday of Eid Al Fitr, when the film opens in more than 40 cities in the United States and Canada. Eid Al Fitr marks the end of Ramadan, the Muslim holy month of fasting.

Ramadan begins today, based on the sighting of the moon last night marking the ninth month of the Islamic lunar calendar. The holy month coincides with the period nearly 1,400 years ago when the Quran was revealed to Muhammad in what is now Saudi Arabia. Like the prophet, who fasted twice a week, Muslims will observe a fast for the next month, refraining from eating, drinking and sex during daylight.

By movie standards, Mohammed will have a tiny release -- 100 screens and a one-week run. The distributor says the only thing more challenging than making a film without a visible hero is marketing a Muslim movie in post-9/11 America.

"We had a tough time with theaters," said Oussama Jammal, president and CEO of Fine Media Group, a Chicago-based film distributor.

Jammal said some owners turned him down before they had heard the film's title. Others said they had no space. Jammal blames economic and political concerns, as well as prejudice -- though he declined to elaborate when pressed for evidence of discrimination.

Whatever the reasons, after months of work, Fine Media had failed to book a single screen, so it's renting theaters, spending hundreds of thousands of dollars of its own money, Jammal said. In Baltimore, the movie will show at United Artists Westview 9. Advance tickets are available online at www.finemediagroup.com or by phone at 1-800-FMG-2000.

The film chronicles more than two decades in the life of the Prophet Muhammad, a seventh-century Arab businessman revered in a religion now embraced by 1.2 billion people worldwide. The Last Prophet follows Muhammad as he receives the Quran, challenges the corrupt leaders of Mecca, flees into exile and finally returns to establish Islam and rid the city of idolatry.

The film was produced in Burbank, Calif., by director Richard Rich, whose credits include The Fox and the Hound, a 1981 Disney animated movie. Rich, who was away on vacation this week and unavailable for comment, used various techniques to convey Muhammad's presence without showing him.

In some scenes, the audience knows Muhammad is there only through the sound of his footsteps or the opening of a door. In others, the viewer sees the action from Muhammad's point of view, most memorably from horseback as a cheering crowd greets him on his triumphant return to Mecca.

Even some of Muhammad's relatives remain unseen. Hamza, the prophet's heroic uncle, is depicted merely by the bow he carries and uses on occasion to strike opponents.

Muhammad is so holy that to depict him would constitute an act of disrespect, said Sheikh Abdul Rahman Khan, principal of Al-Rahmah, an Islamic school in Woodlawn. Representations of the prophet, he said, might also lead to idolatry.

"It is a matter of safeguarding the faith," said Khan. "Once you open the door to showing a picture of him, then there is no end in controlling what people can do."

Religious requirements also presented challenges in the screenplay. When Muslims mention Muhammad's name, they must immediately follow with the phrase, "Peace be upon him." And because Muhammad cannot actually talk in the film, a narrator must speak on his behalf.

Adhering to these rules is essential, but they can make for awkward dialogue.

In one scene, Abu Talib, another of Muhammad's uncles, urges him to stop preaching to avoid a crackdown by Mecca's rulers. The narrator conveys Muhammad's reaction and response: "This made Muhammad, peace and blessings be upon him, very sad. But he answered, saying, `If they put the sun in my right hand and the moon in my left, I will not stop what I'm doing.'"

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