As the U.S. Box Office heralds the release of Jesus biopic “Son of God” this week, it remains unknown when – and where – the film will be shown in cinemas across the Middle East.
On Thursday night, the film opened to an impressive $1.2 million in North America. The story chronicles the life of Jesus Christ and was made using footage from the hit 10-hour television miniseries “The Bible.” Portuguese actor Diogo Morgado portrays Jesus in the film.
But the film has received scare coverage in Arab media and is perhaps comparable to the 2004 release of Mel Gibson’s “Passion of the Christ,” which was lauded by some in the region, but banned by more conservative Arab states.
Exactly 10 years ago, the film was screened in Egypt, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon – countries home to large Christian populations - and drew enthusiastic crowds.
But it also attracted scorn from a top Shiite cleric in Kuwait, Ayatollah Mohammad Baqer al-Mehri, who urged his government to let the film be shown in theaters there because it "reveals crimes committed by Jews against Christ," according to a report in Middle East newspaper The Daily Star.
Artistic portrayal of prophets
The Islamic argument also returns to one particular ruling which forbids artistic portrayals of the prophets. In Islam, Jesus is revered as a prophet but he is not considered the son of God, nor do Muslims accept the story of the resurrection.
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Knowing this, the mere title of the film “Son of God” may agitate sensitivities in the Muslim-majority region.
“In Egypt, there was a clause in film censorship which bans the on-screen artistic portrayal of prophets, and so, no such film was screened since the 1960s,” top Egyptian film critic Tarek el-Shenawy told Al Arabiya News on Saturday.
“But this clause changed in 2004 with the film ‘The Passion of the Christ.’ Muslims regard Jesus as a prophet, but Christians regard him as the son of God.”
But much has changed since the 2004 release of “The Passion of the Christ.” Political Islam and an Islamist militant insurgency have swelled throughout the region, following the Arab Spring uprisings. Also, a 2012 film mocking Prophet Mohammad aggravated Muslims across the world.
Billed as a film trailer, the “Innocence of Muslims” video depicted the Prophet as a fool and a sexual deviant. It sparked a torrent of anti-American unrest among Muslims in Egypt, Libya and other countries in 2012.
Screening in the Mideast?
Currently, rights to “Son of God” have been sold off to more than 60 territories, including the Middle East and including a sale to leading distributor Gulf Film, according to Hollywood Reporter.
Gulf Film was unavailable for comment when contacted by Al Arabiya News on Saturday.
The biblical epic has also been sold in many Asian markets where there are sizeable Christian populations, such as Singapore, Indonesia, Taiwan and Malaysia.
son of god
While a date has been set for the film to open in Latin America over Easter, it remains unclear when and where in the Middle East the film will show.
But based on some religious reactions from the Gulf after “The Passion of the Christ” was released, it may seem that the future of the current Jesus biopic is in doubt.
Along with Kuwait, Bahrain also banned The Passion “because it depicts Jesus,” according to that Gulf nation's Information Ministry. The ban applied to movie theater screenings as well as tapes or DVDs, but did not stop pirated copies of the film being circulated in Kuwait.
But in Egypt, the film was screened uncensored and was rated 18+ due to scenes of gruesome punishment.
"My understanding is that it is about the last 12 hours in the life of Christ, which involve Christians and Jews. Muslims have nothing to do with that," Sheikh Abdel Zaher Mohammed Abdel-Razeq, whose office at Cairo's Al-Azhar University offers guidance on which films as well as books and other materials Muslims should watch, was quoted as saying at the time.
Perhaps “Son of God” will be welcomed in a similar way?
“The world is changing now, it is now impossible for censors to ban this film as it carries religious significance to many. When ‘The Passion of the Christ’ was screened in Egypt, many in the audience were veiled Muslim women; and so, Muslims are also interested,” Shenawy said.
“It’s highly unlikely that the countries that banned ‘The Passion of the Christ’ 10 years ago will ban ‘Son of God’ now. The world has wised up to the freedom of distribution and expression,” the critic added.
son of god
Still, cinemas in the Arab world can expect a busy year ahead with several religiously-themed films to be released in 2014, the Los Angeles Times notes.
“Noah,” the story of the flood starring Russell Crowe as the protagonist, will be released in the U.S. this month. Also, a Christian film about a four-year-old boy who experiences heaven during a surgery titled “Heaven Is for Real” will be released in April. Finally, “Exodus,” in which Christian Bale will play Moses in a film, will be showing in December.