LOS ANGELES – The most expensive film ever produced in Iran, “Muhammad: The Messenger of God,” premiered Thursday to sold-out theaters after being delayed a day due to audio issues, Agence France Press reports.
The one-day delay had been the latest hiccup in a seven-year odyssey to make the controversial 171-minute film, which cost an estimated $40 million, and is the first of a trilogy looking at the life of the Muslim prophet Muhammad.
Some Iranian Sunni Muslims have been upset with the movie because they believe any depiction of Mohammed is blasphemous. In 2012, Al-Azhar’s Islamic Research Academy tried and failed to stop the production of the film.
“We demand that Iran refrain from releasing the movie, so that an undistorted image of the Prophet can be preserved in the minds of Muslims,” the group said in a statement. “We call upon all filmmakers to respect religions and Prophets.”
While Iran's government was critical of the satirical cartoons of Muhammad in the French magazine Charlie Hebdo, which saw 11 of its staffers murdered in its offices because of their publication, its Shiite community is reportedly not as anxious about the depiction of religious figures as are its Sunni population.
But film producer Mark Joseph said the unease over seeing a religious prophet portrayed onscreen isn’t just a Sunni thing. He says American filmmakers once faced similar challenges when portraying Jesus Christ onscreen.
“The Christian community faced similar issues fifty years ago, and in ‘Ben Hur,’ filmmakers didn't show Christ's face clearly, but the trend to do so began with ‘King of Kings’ in 1961,” Joseph said. “Ultimately, with ‘Jesus of Nazareth,’ ‘The Passion’ and others, most Christians overcame any difficulties with depicting the face of Christ in film.”
Joseph said the movie “Muhammad” will be an interesting test case.
“It remains to be seen how the Islamic world will come down on the issue, and in particular how the reaction will differ in the Sunni and Shiite communities," he said.
The release of “Muhammad” has been an exercise in caution. AFP reports the film wasn’t even shown at Iran’s big film festival in order to "preserve the dignity" of the prophet.
But for all of the controversy, this isn't even the first "Muhammad" made. Another film called "Muhammad, Messenger of God", was released in 1976 by a Syrian-American filmmaker, and was a huge hit.