Revue de la Dame du Ciel – ambitious religious epic about the daughter of Muhammad | Movies
Jits British-made epic wins an important accolade: it’s the first film to put the “face” of the Prophet Muhammad on screen. No actor is credited with playing him, nor any of the other holy figures around him. And, as a nervous initial warning points out, their faces, often depicted as dazzling rays of sunlight, are computer-generated. Presumably, that’s enough to assuage Islam’s ban on the visual depiction of the prophet, but it’s a Shia-aligned film that’s obviously a bit more lenient on the matter.
While purporting, according to the title, to be about Muhammad’s daughter Fatimah, it largely focuses on her cousin and successor Ali. Director Eli King and writer Sheikh al-Habib attempt to give the origin story of Islam a contemporary parallel: There’s a frame sequence in which Laith (Gabriel Cartade), a young boy from Mosul, is orphaned when his mother is executed by Islamic State soldiers for teaching him a blasphemous song. Laith is adopted by a soldier from Baghdad, and the soldier’s mother comforts the youngster with the story of the holy Fatimah, whose example of strength she promises will sustain him through dark times.
What is strange is that the film, until its last stretch, hardly presents Fatimah – who in any case is the only Islamic luminary whose face is never shown, which, with a vocal performance embarrassing, hinders our attachment to her. Instead, The Lady of Heaven gives a stilted presentation of the nascent alien religion that is more drawn to her eventual husband Ali, a martial badass with vehement anime eyes. It is only after Muhammad’s death, with his father-in-law Abu Bakr’s (Ray Fearon) depiction of the budding tyranny, that this flat-footed tale begins to ring with the religious intolerance of today.
Production values are decent, with impressive mud-brick sets and the kohl-eyed, vibrantly caped pagan rabble contrasting nicely with the austere Muslim camp. But with a few half-baked performances and the odd tinge of cockney seeping in, it seems a bit too obvious that the cast is closer to Mile End than Medina. The Lady of Heaven has very little of the poetic flair of Muhammad: Messenger of God, Majid Majidi’s 2015 treatment of the prophet’s early years, or indeed the odd rigidity of the 1977 Messenger, often shot from the prophet’s perspective to the first person. And for a film that aims to promote religious diversity and freedom of thought, its metronomic alternation between temporalities, narrative servitude and laughable coda have a suffocating sense of orthodoxy.