A controversial Islamic epic is the first Arabic movie to hit Saudi cinemas

Screening something big.
Screening something big.
Image: AP Photo/Amr Nabil
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The controversial 1976 epic The Message is finally being screened in Saudi Arabia. It’s the first Arabic film to get a commercial cinema screening in the conservative kingdom.

The film, which chronicles the origin of Islam and the life of prophet Muhammad, is now a staple in many Muslim households across the world. The Message was made in two versions: one in English, starring Anthony Quinn and Irene Papas, and one in Arabic, with leading Arab stars, the Egyptian Abdullah Gheith and Mouna Wasef of Syria. Its production and initial release were met with heavy backlash.

The film was banned in a number of Muslim countries, including Saudi Arabia and Kuwait. In the US, theatrical release was suspended after members of the Hanafi movement, an extremist group, staged a siege in Washington, D.C., taking hostages and killing two people. The group had mistakenly believed that Quinn played the role of Muhammad on film.

Images of Muhammad are strictly forbidden in Islam. The Syrian-American director and producer Moustapha Akkad was well aware and created a film in which the main character is never shown or heard. Instead, his presence is suggested when other characters speak to the camera directly. And they repeat the prophet’s words. Despite this, the film was still harshly criticized by conservative Islamic clerics.

Now, more than 40 years after the film was first released, the Saudi censorship board cleared it to be screened today (June 14) in a restored 4K version. The film will air just in time for Eid celebrations.

Last December, the Saudi government announced it would be re-opening movie theaters after a 35-year ban.  Marvel’s superhero blockbuster Black Panther was the first film to be shown, followed by Isle of Dogs and A Quiet Place.

Saudi reopened cinemas as part its bid to encourage a more open domestic culture. Previously, movies would be watched films in homes, or Saudis would have go to cinemas in neighboring countries. The recent liberalization of Saudi society is seen largely as a drive to diversify its economy, which relies on oil exports for 90% of its state budget. The government has pledged to invest billions of dollars in non-oil businesses, particular in technology.