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Film Review: Triumphant “Innocence Of Muslims” Earns Its 79 Virgins

Surprising shoestring-budget film shines in telling story of the world's third most important prophet.



Published September 13, 2012

Related story: Pres. Obama to ban anti-Islam speech in response to film
Related story: Opinion: Free Speech Is Only Valuable If You Are Alive To Use It

If any publicity is good publicity, the controversial film Innocence of Muslims is very fortunate indeed. Recent unrest in the Middle East supposedly sparked by previews of the film has launched an unintended awareness campaign that no marketing budget could touch. But is Innocence worth the price of admission?

The identity of the producers of Innocence remains shrouded in mystery, but one thing is certain: they have created a nuanced, exciting and visually sumptuous film. Innocence is Islam’s answer to Passion of the Christ – even if it takes a slightly more critical view of Islam. This critical view, however, separates it from Passion and makes it a legitimate masterwork.

Innocence shrewdly uses a cast of talented unknowns, avoiding the distraction of a recognized actor playing a historical figure. There is rumor that Keanu Reeves was considered for the role, and one can see a bit of his persona in the young lead. The actor playing Mohammed – whose name has not been released – shines. He shows all of the texture you could hope for in a Mohammed. The personal growth seen in him reminds one of the protagonists' rousing rise in favorites such as The Karate Kid and the original Rocky. His internal struggles with both his sexuality and religious ideals virtually leap from the screen.

The direction is a blend of cinema verite and Scorcese at the height of his powers.  

The supporting cast equally delivers. Cindy Lee Garcia – who plays the mother of Mohammed’s bride-to-be – could not be less entrancing. Even as Mohammed rose to power, her will to protect her daughter was paramount. Mohammed’s bride acts as Shakespeare’s “shrew” that must be tamed by her suitor, and watching the Islamic prophet struggle with a strong female character is something to behold. 

Although Innocence’s director and cinematographer are unknown, both will be considered for an Oscar nod – maybe on an anonymous basis.  The direction is a blend of cinema verite and Scorcese at the height of his powers.  In classic cinema verite style, shoulder held cameras follow characters into interiors, lines are dubbed without any attempt to hide them and shadows are cast across actors.  The effect lovingly salutes Mastroianni and Fellini.  Like early-Scorcese, the violence is gritty and tense, but never forced or gratuitous.

Also, using a technique harkening to that Australian gem Moulin Rouge!, the actors played against a blue screen with desert imagery floating behind them inserted later.  The effect is surreal and intoxicating at the same time.  For example, when the actors step across the sand, the sand does not move.  They appear to levitate over it.

It will be interesting to see who these wizards are behind this powerhouse of a film. One can only suspect that many of the actors can be found relaxing at a Sherman Oaks Starbucks until the furor dies down.  Like Mohammed himself, their futures seem bright.