This weekend, the most expensive film in Iran's history will debut at a prominent film festival in Tehran. It's about the prophet Muhammad. And no, you will not be able to see his face.
The film's director, internationally-acclaimed Iranian auteur Majid Majidi, has spent five years on the project, which is part of a planned trilogy on Muhammad's life. The first installment tells the story of Muhammad from birth to age 12, when he visits Sham, or what's now Syria. The total cost of the film is estimated at about $30 million, a record sum for an Iranian production. It was produced in relative secrecy, with reporters given little access to the sets, which reportedly include whole mini-cities built on location.
"The film starts with [the prophet’s] adolescence, and his childhood is shown through flashbacks. We chose the period before Muhammad became a prophet," Majidi told reporters in September.
Majidi's "Muhammad" appears to have won the approval of Iran's theocratic government. Images of the prophet are forbidden by Islamic doctrine, and that includes having a fallible man play the role on screen. The 1976 film "The Message," made by Syrian director Moustapha Akkad, told the story of the birth of Islam without depicting or hearing Muhammad himself. It starred Anthony Quinn, who played Hamza, Muhammad's uncle.
A more recent blockbuster, the Turkish epic "Fetih 1453," about the Ottoman conquest of Constantinople, opens with a scene filmed through the perspective of the prophet. But he does not speak and is not seen.
According to the Guardian, Majidi employed three-time Oscar-winning Italian cinematographer Vittorio Storaro to help make the depiction possible in this film, using "various combinations of light and darkness." Majidi also enlisted celebrated Indian composer A.R. Rahman to create the film's score.
"Muhammad" is slated for wider release in the Middle East and the rest of the world in March. It's there where it may begin to court more controversy. Though Tehran has loudly protested the decision of some Western newspapers to publish cartoons showing the prophet, sensitivities surrounding Muhammad's depiction are more acute in the Sunni world, where more orthodox views may hold sway. In predominantly Shiite Iran, there's an established tradition of venerating various representations of divinity, including the tombs of saints.
Majidi is one of Iran's most well-known filmmakers, famed for his lush, gentle stories of ordinary Iranians and their daily struggles. They are politically safe, as some critics note, often playing on nostalgic, sentimental themes rooted in rural life that gesture toward a sense of spirituality, but say nothing about Iran's authoritarian status quo.
Majidi, who is considered to be favored by Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, produced a campaign video in 2009 for reformist presidential candidate Mir-Houssein Mousavi. Mousavi lost in murky circumstances, leading to popular street protests against Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad that were brutally repressed. Mousavi is still under house arrest. But Majidi appears to have emerged from the political tumult unscathed.
He hopes that "Muhammad" will burnish the image of both Islam and Iran in the wider world.
"This film is a step forward for Muslim cinema," he told local reporters last year. "We're going to help open your eyes to what Islam really is all about. We have a lot of positive things to share with the world, provided that the West is ready for such a dialogue. I think that Iran can have something strong to say through its arts and culture."