THis British-produced epic deserves great acclaim: it is the first film to show the “face” of the Prophet Muhammad on screen. No actor is credited with his role or any of the other sacred figures in his entourage. And as the tense initial disclaimer points out, their faces, often seen in blinding sunlight, are computer generated. This is supposed to be enough to appease the Islamic ban on visual depictions of the Prophet, but this is a Shiite movie and is clearly a bit more lenient on the issue.
While the title claims that she is Muhammad’s daughter Fatima, this is largely focused on his cousin and successor, Ali. Director Eli King and writer Sheikh al-Habib attempt to give the emergence of Islam a contemporary resemblance: it includes a frame sequence in which Laith (Gabriel Kartad), a boy from Mosul, is an orphan whose mother is executed by Islamic State soldiers executed for their execution. Teach him a blasphemous hymn. A soldier in Baghdad adopts Laith, and the soldier’s mother consoles the boy by telling him the story of Saint Fatima, who promised her exemplary strength to make him go through hard times.
The strange thing is that the film barely depicts Fatima until the end – she is after all the only Muslim character whose face has never been shown, which is combined with an embarrassingly clumsy voice acting that hampers our relationship with her. Instead, Our Lady of Heaven takes an elaborate tour of the burgeoning foreign religion, which is drawn more to her future husband Ali, an aggressive man with strong anime eyes. Only after Muhammad’s death, with its depiction of the emerging despotism of his father-in-law Abu Bakr (Ray Veron), did this tale begin to resonate with contemporary religious intolerance.
Production values are decent, with dazzling adobe ensembles and a clearly camouflaged charcoal-eyed pagan mob contrasting nicely with the strict Islamic camp. But with some undercooked performances and that weird Cockney whiff creeping in, it seems pretty clear that the cast hails from the nearest Mile End to town. Our Lady of Heaven has a bit of a poetic flair for Muhammad: Messenger of God, Majid Majidi’s 2015 treatment of the early years of the prophet, or indeed the prophet’s supernatural rigor in 1977, often from the first-person perspective of the prophets. And for a film that aims to encourage religious diversity and freedom of thought, its standard shifts between timeframes, narrative slavery, and absurd coda has a stifling sense of orthodoxy.