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Visualizing the Sacred: Islam on Film

The Message

UCLA Film & Television ArchiveThe Message

UCLA Film & Television Archive

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The Message

The title of UCLA’s monthlong series of films about the lives of Muslims around the world is given a rich twist with director Moustapha Akkad’s 1976 The Message, in which (according to Islamic tenets) neither the voice nor the image of the prophet Muhammad is depicted. The film itself, the story of the birth of Islam, is an old-fashioned campy epic (heavy-handed dialogue and exposition; lots of hammy acting) in which the “absence” within the “presence” of Muhammad (the film’s central character) is a metaphor for sacredness itself — which begs the question, how do you visualize the sacred? And how do you define it? Farida Ben Lyazid puts a distinctly feminine and feminist twist on those queries in 1989’s prescient A Door to the Sky, in which a young Moroccan woman’s trip home for her father’s funeral sparks her own spiritual reawakening and a struggle to synthesize traditional beliefs with the freedoms she has experienced while living in Europe. Like Door, Ismael Ferrouki’s poignant, elegant Long Voyage Home (2004) sets spiritual struggle and illumination within the domestic sphere, as French-Moroccan teenager Reda is forced to drive his elderly father to Mecca. This road film hits familiar genre notes (cramped quarters lead to resentment, then slow bonding) as father and son make their way toward the Holy Land. Reda’s gradual awakening to and appreciation of his father’s religious devotion gingerly unfold, but it’s the old man’s love for his son and determination to impart something of the sacred that make Voyage so moving. (UCLA Film & Television Archive at the Billy Wilder Theater; thru Sat., June 7. www.cinema.ucla.edu.)