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Iran’s arbitrary censorship system made one religious film a blockbuster, while banning another

Published with permission of Majid Majidi
A trick of the light.
By Bobby Ghosh
Published Last updated This article is more than 2 years old.

Tehran, Iran

For a little clarity on Iran’s often combustible—and always confusing—combination of religion and politics, it might help to watch two big-budget movies about Shia Islam’s holiest figures, released within weeks of each other this summer.

Trouble is, you’re only allowed to see one of them.

Muhammad: The Messenger of God, director Majid Majidi’s epic, three-hour telling of the prophet’s childhood, is still showing in Tehran’s cinemas, more than three months after its release. It has already been shown at film festivals in Europe and Canada, and is scheduled for wider international release soon. But Rastakhiz, a rousing account of Imam Hussein and the historic battle of Karbala, was shut down within days of its debut by angry mobs and clerics, who were incensed by director Ahmad Reza Darvish’s decision to depict one of Shia Islam’s great heroes.

Both directors say they consulted several ayatollahs and other scholars before starting on their projects. Neither would have been allowed to shoot within the country without the blessing of the all-powerful Ministry of Guidance and Islamic Culture. So why has one film been singled out for vilification?

It comes down to a matter of face. Actually, two faces—one on screen, and one behind the scenes.

Majidi and Darvish were both aware they were taking on tricky subjects. Many Muslims, especially in the majority Sunni sect, believe it is forbidden to depict the faith’s revered figures in any form, whether in portrait or on celluloid—or in cartoons, come to that. Among the Shia, who make up the majority in Iran, the picture is less clear: many of the faithful think nothing of hanging artists impressions of Imam Ali—the prophet’s son-in-law and the founder figure of Shia Islam—and other Shia heroes in their homes, but recoil from the idea of showing them in film, played by actors. (Depicting the visage of the prophet himself, in any medium, is beyond the pale for most Shia.)

As a result, no mainstream filmmaker has attempted a biopic of either the prophet or the imam. Syrian-born Moustapha Akkad came closest in 1976, with The Message, a creative telling of Islam’s foundational tale, in which Muhammad and Ali are always off camera, never seen or heard.

Taking a leaf out of Akkad’s book, neither of this year’s films shows the face of its main character. The child Muhammad is seen, usually from behind, or from artful angles that conceal his face—the cinematographer, Vittorio Storaro (who won Oscars for Apocalypse Now, Reds, and The Last Emperor), uses light and shadow to clever effect, as you can see in the trailer, below. “We worked hard to find angles that would hide his face in a way that seems natural,” Majidi told me. “We didn’t want to just put a blob where his face should be.”

But Muhammed is heard to speak, which is a daring break from the norm. Majidi maintains this doesn’t break any taboos because “I’m showing him before he received the revelation… At this point in his life, he’s not yet the prophet.” A grown-up Ali appears in one scene, but his face is obscured in a shadow.

In the case of Darvish’s Rastakhiz (its English title is Hussein, Who Said No), the trailer on YouTube is the only thing that’s accessible:

The film never shows the face of Hussein, Ali’s son and Shia Islam’s third imam, who was martyred in the battle of Karbala. But it does show the battle’s other great hero—Hussein’s half-brother, Abbas. This was always going to be controversial: Although Abbas was not an imam, he beloved among the Shia for his gallantry at Karbala. He is also known as Abu Falz, or “father of graceful manners.”

Darvish turned down my requests for an interview, saying only that he’s still hoping that religious authorities will relent and allow his movie to be shown. But he has previously said he got explicit permission to show Abbas’s face from religious scholars, and that after a private screening, he made some cuts to ameliorate their anxieties.

His efforts were to no avail. No sooner had the film opened in Tehran than mobs—apparently encouraged by hardline clerical and political figures—stormed the cinemas, forcing them to close. Majidi’s Muhammad, by contrast, has been named Iran’s official entry for the next Academy Awards.

Religious sensibilities don’t fully explain the disparate fates of the two films. As so often in Iran, faith is mixed up in politics, with commercial considerations thrown in for good measure. Majidi’s film was financed in part by the Bonyad Moztazafan, a charitable “foundation” run by the powerful Revolutionary Guards. The producer, Muhammed Mehdi Heiderian, estimates it cost $40 million, the biggest budget ever for an Iranian movie. With so much money at stake, it is hard to imagine that the Revolutionary Guards would have allowed Muhammad to be shut down by irate mobs.

Rastakhiz, which is estimated to have cost $13 million, doesn’t have comparable political backing. If anything, the Guards regard Darvish as a troublemaker: He directed a campaign video for Mir-Hossein Mousavi, the reformist candidate in the controversial 2009 presidential elections, which led to mass protests, violence, and widespread accusations of vote-rigging in favor of the incumbent, Mahmoud Ahmedinejad. Moussavi and his wife remain under house arrest. Some reformist activists have suggested that Darvish is being punished for belonging to the wrong political camp.

And so to the face behind the scenes: the Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei.  Shortly before Muhammad was released nationwide, one of the ayatollah’s advisors let it be known that Khamenei so enjoyed his first viewing, he was keen to immediately watch the entire three-hour saga again. When a movie gets two thumbs up from the Supreme Leader, any hurdles are bound to fade away.

But Khamenei’s writ doesn’t run far beyond Iran. And as Majidi prepares for his movie’s international release, he knows that in many Muslim countries, it will face the sort of opposition Rastakhiz has encountered at home. A biopic of the Prophet Muhammad is anathema to many Sunni scholars, and it has been condemned by the clerics of Cairo’s Al-Azhar, the highest authority in Sunni Islam; by the Grand Mufti of Saudi Arabia; and by a Muslim group in India. (The music for Muhammad was directed by Indian maestro A.R. Rahman, who won an Oscar for Slumdog Millionaire.)

The first test will come in Turkey later this month, when Muhammad opens in 400 cinemas. Heiderian, the producer, is optimistic that it will pass clerical muster. “We sent it to some muftis there, and they had no objections,” he tells me.

But as relations between Iran and Turkey turn testy over the war in Syria, politics may yet have a role to play in the fate of Majidi’s opus.

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