One of the most expensive films in Iranian cinema history, Muhammad: The Messenger of God, has traveled down a long and controversial road on its way to consideration for a foreign-language Oscar in the upcoming Academy Awards.
Variety reports the film, which shows the prophet Muhammad’s life from birth to adolescence (all while avoiding showing his face), has been nominated to represent the country’s small film industry, making it the first Iranian film to contend for an Oscar since 2012’s A Separation.
The film was directed by Majid Majidi and scored by Oscar-winning composer A.R. Rahman (Slumdog Millionaire), and cost an estimated $40 million to produce, most of it funded by the state.
Majidi was nominated for an Oscar in the same category for 1997’s Children of Heaven.
Along with taking in almost $2 million in its first month of release on roughly 150 Iranian screens, Muhammad: The Messenger of God has also hauled in a lot a lot of controversy.
Fatwas were issued against both Majidi and Rahman in September, by a group of Sunni Muslim clerics in India over the film’s depiction of Muhammad, whose arms, legs and back can be seen.
Islam strictly forbids representations of the prophet, something puritanical Sunni Muslims are often willing to enforce with violence. Shia Muslims, meanwhile, such as those who make up a majority in Iran, are more open to the depictions of human beings through art, up to and including Muhammad.
Look no farther than the comments sections of videos of the film on YouTube, or other video sharing websites, to see examples of the division created by the movie online.
The comments section of the above trailer has amassed nearly 800 responses on the subject, with some commenters questioning if the child actors who played the role of Muhammad in the film will be killed for doing so.
Majidi, who began work on the film nearly a decade ago, told reporters at the Montreal Film Festival in September he hoped the movie would help counter what he described as a “violent image” of his religion.
“The more movies that are made about the prophet’s life,” the director told the U.K.’s Guardian newspaper, “the better.”
Despite all the controversy, the film, which is expected to be the first of a trilogy, will represent Iran at the year’s Academy Awards.