Academic journal article Journal of Religion and Film

The Qur'anic Epic in Iranian Cinema

Academic journal article Journal of Religion and Film

The Qur'anic Epic in Iranian Cinema

Article excerpt

The production of Biblical films almost immediately followed the birth of cinema. Pathe's productions of The Birth of Jesus (1909), Life of Christ (1910) and C.G.P.C's Biblical releases Cain and Abel (1911), Infancy of Moses (1911) and Abraham's Sacrifice (1912) are a few early examples. Jon Solomon outlines the audience's familiarity with the Bible and Latin texts as well as the popularity of antiquity "in contemporary theatrical, literary, and educational worlds at the end of the nineteenth century" (2001: 3), as a natural choice for the pioneers of cinema in the West. Moreover, these narratives with their "magnificent spectacle", "seductive royalty" and "biblical revolutionaries" made for excellent filmic material (Solomon, 2001:1).

Qur'anic films and the epic genre more broadly in Iranian cinema are, however, relatively recent developments. In addition to the scarcity of the required financial and technical resources, Iranian epics need to be studied within the particular socio-political context from which they emerged. The representation of religious figures in Islam has become particularly controversial in recent years. Whilst medieval illustrated manuscripts from the Muslim world demonstrate the existence of these depictions within their cultural practices, contemporary debates on the topic have been dominated by an amnesiac denial of the existence or permissibility of these depictions within Islam. The creation of religious films has, therefore, turned into a highly sensitive undertaking, evident in the very small number of such films produced by Muslim countries. This has also affected the screenings of recent Western biblical epics in these countries, many of which banned them on various grounds, including the representation of prophets, forbidden in Islam.1 However, some cinemas within the Muslim world have employed this new medium in imagining and narrating stories of revered religious figures. This article will first study the emergence of Iranian epics as a genre with a particular focus on religious epics. It will then examine the ways in which Iranian filmmakers have negotiated the balance between religious authenticity and dramatic effectiveness in their films. Here, I will examine the Iranian television series Imam Ali (Davud Mirbaqeri, 1997) and Kingdom of Solomon (Molk-e Soleyman, Shahriar Bahrani, 2010), the latter of which I argue is the first Qur'anic epic in Iranian cinema and arguably in the Muslim world.

Emergence of Iranian Epics

In the Western context, the prevailing popularity of biblical storylines eased the transition of familiar ancient themes from theatre to cinema. It also meant that early filmmakers could draw from the theatre resources at their disposal such as costumes, props and sets to make films about the ancient world. Sidney Olcott, one of the directors of the first version of Ben Hur made in 1907, for example "grabbed an armload of Metropolitan Opera costumes to outfit his limited cast at Manhattan's Battery Park" (Solomon, 2001:5). Within the Iranian context, however, the tradition of drama in its "formal Western terms [is] a relatively new art form" even though "various types of dramatic performance, including religious plays and humorous satirical skits have long been a part of Persian religious and folk tradition" (Ghanoonparvar, 1996).

Ta'ziyeh is one of the most significant traditional performing arts of Iran, also referred to as the "Shi'i Passion play" in Western literature (Chelkowski, 1984:45). These performances re-enact the events that led to the death of Husayn b. 'Ali, the grandson of the Prophet Muhammad and the third Shi'i imam, in 680. The earliest recorded ta'ziyeh performance dates back to the eighteenth century in Iran (Beyzaie, 2001: 117). Ta'ziyeh reached its peak during the rule of Naser al-Din Shah Qajar (r. 1848-1896) when it enjoyed royal patronage. In 1869, the Shah commissioned the building of Takiyeh Dowlat, an impressive edifice modelled on The Royal Albert Hall after his visit to London. …

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