'The Message' tells the story of Islam's creation, of its creator Muhammad, and of the battles that raged for its being recognized in Mecca. The historical epic is only one of two motion pictures ever directed by Moustapha Akkad, the filmmaker best known for producing the 'Halloween' series and pretty much responsible for its continuation. Even before its completion, the production was hotly controversial, but funnily enough, much of that controversy took place in the United States. It was mostly due to financing problems which nearly shut down the production if not for backing from the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and Muammar Gaddafi. In spite of it all, the end result is a wonderfully entertaining film that can proudly stand alongside such classic epics as 'The Ten Commandments,' 'Ben-Hur,' 'Quo Vadis,' 'Barabbas' and 'David and Bathsheba.'
One of the more remarkable aspects the film is wildly known for is the absence of its main protagonist. According to Islamic tradition, any depictions of the Prophet Muhammad are viewed as offensive, so the filmmakers were particularly respectful to this belief. Whether one agrees or not with this attempt of adhering to a religious views — and frankly, it's a fruitless conversation for some other time — the challenge has yielded a uniquely creative and inspired form of visual storytelling. The entirety of the nearly three-hour epic is told in third-person narrative, but it occasionally switches to a second-person point-of-view. Over the years since its release, it's this individual trait which has kept the film in the conscious of moviegoers and historians. And today, it arguably remains the primary interest for contemporary audiences to watch and study.
At certain moments in the story, which were wisely chosen to heighten the drama or the importance of a specific historical event, characters break the fourth wall either by speaking or looking directly at the camera. It's an awkward approach at first, but it's shockingly effective, engaging viewers in a way rarely seen in movies. In one scene, when Muslim followers take to the streets of Mecca announcing their preferred worship, a riot ensues, with people throwing stones and supposedly surrounding Muhammad. The camera then acts as if from his perspective, but the low-angle shot also adds tension to the situation. However, in a few spots, this tactic can also seem a bit clumsy and silly. As in a later scene during the Battle of Badr, the camera is from the side of a sword supposedly being wielded by Muhammad, but it sadly distracts from enjoying the battle.
Nevertheless, the camerawork remains impressively ingenious and sometimes strikingly powerful, as characters seem to look directly at the viewer and generate a feeling of being part of the story and their struggle. Akkad's choice of only using this tactic during specific moments makes them that more intimate and distinctive. But he also displays a great eye for the several skirmishes the ensued among the Quraish tribes. Whereas Muhammad scenes feel tighter and more personal, the two major battles between the Meccans and the Muslims take a wider lens, showing the large desert expanse that separated them as well as the enormous forces the small religious followers fought against. The style and approach may seem a bit familiar, but it's notable and well-done nonetheless for a directorial debut. Unfortunately, some of its grandeur and excitement is lost on this Blu-ray because it's presented in the wrong aspect ratio.
'The Message' (originally titled 'Mohammad, Messenger of God') is rounded up with amazing performances by the entire cast, mostly notably Anthony Quinn, who a decade earlier portrayed Barabbas in Richard Fleischer's film. He terrifically grounds the story as Muhammad's uncle, Hamza, while trusted companions Bilal (Johnny Sekka) and Zayd (Damien Thomas) provide the devout spiritualism one would expect from a film of this type, particularly in Thomas's powerfully emotional portrayal. Michael Ansara and Irene Papas also star as Abu Sufyan and his wife Hind, merchant leaders in Mecca who fervently opposed the rise of Islam but later became converts. By the end, the epic arrives at a riveting conclusion that's surprisingly uplifting without also feeling forced or ham-fisted, making it a wonderful motion picture deserving to be seen as a classic.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
Anchor Bay and Starz Home Entertainment brings 'The Message' to Blu-ray on a Region A locked, BD50 disc housed inside a blue, eco-vortex case. At startup, viewers are taken to a static menu with music.
'The Message' delivers its message with an awfully substandard and poor AVC MPEG-4 encode presented in 1080i/60 video. This is especially disappointing because the print used appears to be in pretty good condition, offering many great moments with distinct detailing and clarity. On the other hand, there are also several poorly-resolved sequences that are terribly soft and blurry, which would suggest little effort and time was taken into restoring the film back to its former glory. The grain structure is made more apparent during these moments as well.
Making matters worse are instances of minor jaggies along the edges with telecine judder, combing and mild ghosting during various times of the runtime. Probably the gravest offense of all is the fact that this high-def transfer has been grossly reframed from its original 2.35:1 aspect ratio to this 1.78:1 presentation, which would explain the many poorly-resolved scenes. Although black levels are true and deeply rendered, contrast is rarely stable and consistent. Some sequences are well-balanced with crisp whites while at other times, the picture goes flat and listless. Colors, however, are bold with warm, clean secondary hues.
In the end, the film makes a terrible offering on Blu-ray.
The classic epic brings better tidings in the audio department and offers two listening options, though one is definitely stronger than other. The 5.1 upmix, presented in a DTS-HD MA codec, is surprisingly not bad, but sadly far from perfect. Although much of the action is contained in the fronts, a few well-placed atmospherics expand the soundfield to create a pleasing environment without feeling artificial. While vocals are well-prioritized, the mid-range often feels stressed and thinned out, exhibiting a few instances of clipping and distortion. Low-frequency affects are a tad exaggerated but still good.
The better presentation is an uncompressed PCM stereo soundtrack that's not only more satisfying but truer to the film's original design. The soundstage comes with a cleaner spatial presence that also feels broader and more welcoming thanks to an excellent, well-balanced separation between the channels. Dialogue, too, is precise and intelligible from beginning to end with good directionality and movement across the soundfield. Bass is more appropriate and accurate for a film of this vintage. Unfortunately, several instances of a limited dynamic range interrupt than otherwise great lossless mix, as the mids sometimes sound flat while the highs come off a tad too bright and mildly clipped.
Chronicling the history of Islam's creation, its spiritual prophet Muhammad, and of the battles that raged for it being recognized in Mecca, 'The Message' is a remarkably compelling and wonderfully engaging epic. One of only two motion pictures directed by Moustapha Akkad, the film is probably best known and remembered for its distinctive camerawork, but it's ingeniously effective for telling a uniquely challenging story. Sadly, the Blu-ray arrives with terribly disappointing video, presented in the wrong aspect ratio, but better lossless audio. With a lack of supplements to boot, the overall package is altogether a substandard release and should probably be avoided by anyone who truly loves cinema or the film itself.