On Sunday, March 26, I had the opportunity to screen the Iranian filmmaker Majid Majidi’s stunning 2015 masterpiece Muhammad: Messenger of God. Adding to the cinematic brilliance of the East Coast premiere was an ultra rare introduction by legendary cinematographer Vittorio Storaro. The visionary behind such trailblazing films as Apocalypse Now and the Last Emperor, Storaro spoke eloquently about the purpose of Muhammad and the need for religious understanding and tolerance in a world full of propaganda, bigotry, selfishness, terror and warfare. We actually live in an age that was quite similar to the seventh- century Hejaz that Muhammad was born into. As a review in The Guardian put it: “It’s a fraught, heaving world, a polytheistic marketplace full of arbitrary violence and idolatrous come-ons.”
In his introduction, Storaro talked glowingly about the universal message of this film and the collective wisdom of Islam that nurtures and fuels its spiritual center.
He also talked about a phenomenon that has baffled astrologists and theologians alike. Apparently, every 500 years or so, a major celestial event precedes the arrival of a great prophet. When the Buddha was born, a sensational event in the heavens has been recorded in ancient manuscripts. When Jesus was born 500 years later, another show in the heavens mesmerized all who saw it. And when Muhammad was born about 500 years after the death of Christ, a “Rain of Fire” starstruck everyone who witnessed it on the desert below. As a master of light and photography — and as an Italian romantic who takes pictures like Donatello brushes paint — Storaro captures this mystical yet utterly natural scene in pictures that are breathtaking to watch on the big screen.
After I left the theater with this extravagant epic swirling around in my imagination, a few thoughts began to congeal out of the creative tempest of this sensational movie. First, how fortunate Rochester is to have the George Eastman Museum and Dryden Theater. For nearly two decades I have been attending films at the Dryden and it has never failed to inspire and challenge me. I have viewed films at the Dryden that have fundamentally changed the way I perceive the world. (Pasolini’s Salo, Sokurov’s The Sun and Hal Ashby’s Harold and Maude are three that come to mind.)
At the Dryden, I have learned how to not only watch movies as a critical participant, I have learned how to watch my own behavior-my own thought patterns and emotional routines-through the characters on screen and the production of the film crew.
At the Dryden, I have learned how to see my own thoughts and feelings as projections of universal thoughts and feelings. As an institution dedicated to the mission of taking people through diverse experiences on film, this theater has opened up new realms for me. I am eternally grateful to have the Dryden in our community.
For instance, when I was watching Muhammad, I was not just watching a movie. I was watching my own prejudice being confronted by the beauty and glory of Storaro’s Mecca. I was watching my own preconceived notions about Islam and the Qur’an being transformed by the remarkable acting of the Iranian cast. Winner of the 2017 George Eastman Award, Storaro does what all artists must do; he forces us to change. He forces us to grow in awareness. He forces us to step out of out comfort zone and see the world from a different landscape.
As an artist, Storaro’s cinematography imbued the world of Muhammad’s first 13 years with such lushness, vitality, innovation, terror, grandiosity, honor, divinity, and hope, that it became impossible to categorize or compartmentalize Islam. Whatever thoughts I had about Muhammad and his message coming into this film, they were altered in a way that I could not have anticipated. I was ready to be impressed by the artistry of cinematic visionaries such as Majidi and Storaro, but I was not prepared to be impressed by the one they call Prophet, peace be upon him.
I can not help but feel that I came away from this film knowing, on a deeper level than before, why billions of followers all over the world are not just Muslims because of tradition and conditioning. In a way that I could never comprehend before, I can see why Muslims adore Muhammad as a harbinger of peace and compassion for humankind. I had read dozens of books, attended numerous lectures, and talked to several friends who told me this is so; but it took a film of this caliber, in a theater of this quality, to finally believe them.
THE GEORGE EASTMAN HOUSE GARDENS
(Photos by George Cassidy Payne