Hussein Who Said No: Fajr review

Farabi Cinema
A nice-looking exotic costumer, but too hard to follow for non-Muslim audiences

The mission of the Imam Hussein is recounted in a spectacular religious epic from Iran

TEHRAN – As the West gears up for the release of the Biblical epics Son of God, Noah and Exodus, there are religious blockbusters on the way from the Islamic world, too. The most touted (and expensive, with a rumored budget of around $70 million and cinematography by Vittorio Storaro) is Iranian director Majid Majidi’s film on the Prophet Muhammad, now in post-production. But the first off the starting block, destined to test the waters and conservative clerical opinion, is Hussein Who Said No, Ahmad Reza Darvish’s swash-buckling account of the years following Muhammad’s death and the new religion's clash with a corrupt caliphate, climaxing in the martyrdom of his grandson, the Imam Hussein, at the battle of Karbala in 680 C.E.  If the epic succeeds in getting the wide release it aims at, it has the spectacular looks and a colorful, easy-viewing style to capitalize on the novelty of its subject and reach out to a huge swatch of Islamic audiences around the world.

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Producer Taqi Aliqoli Zadeh has announced he will dub the Persian-language film into English and Arabic. Ruz-e Rastakhiz (The Day of Resurrection) and Yawm-ul-Hurriyah (The Day of Freedom) are the Persian and Arabic titles of the film, respectively.

Long years in the making, the film appears to have been ready for a while, as though the time was not yet ripe for release. But however pious the intent, and it is definitely religious in outlook, it still faces one huge stumbling block: the taboo on the figurative depiction of major religious figures, which in the movies presents quite an obstacle. The prohibition regards not only the Prophet but also his household. Here Darvish circumvents the difficulty by never showing the Imam Hussein’s face, though actors do portray other members of his family and we see the faces of his brother Hazrat Abbas as well as his sons Ali-Akbar and Ali-Asghar. This was already enough to cause an outcry from some conservative Muslim legal scholars following the film’s world premiere in Teheran at the Fajr Film Festival.

Yet the premiere was attended by ministers favorable to the film and the screening went off without incident. Crowning Iran’s backing of the epic were the five Crystal Simorghs it won in the categories of best film, best director, best composer, best cinematographer, and best costume and set design. With a budget in the neighborhood of $15 million, it represents a large public investment for Iran and the Tamasha Cultural Institute, the only production house credited. This is the same company that made Darvish’s big-budget war film Duel and his romantic drama Born Under Libra, whose examination of the push-pull forces of conservatism and reformism in a university earned him a kidnapping attempt by ultra-conservatives some years ago.

So there are issues here that could hinder windfall profits for a film that has obvious appeal for Muslims, but is barely comprehensible to those outside its religion and culture. Though movies are movies and the opulent production design could have been lifted from a Western costumer with the addition of a camel-friendly  background, watching Hussein Who Said No is still like jumping into the middle of a perplexing mystery play. Of no help are the multiple pages of written explanation that flit by at the beginning of the film; they might as well be the prelude to an obscure Japanese tale of shogun warriors from some long-gone dynasty. The difference is that the Japanese film becomes understandable once the action gets underway, whereas the characters here remain a blur, unless of course the viewer knows them beforehand.

The story takes place after Muhammad’s death and after his sons Ali and Hasan have been assassinated. The early Muslim world is under the reign of the decadent Umayyad Caliph Yazid I, played with sneering cruelty by Babak Hamidian. One of his repugnant acts is to hang a blue-eyed Christian woman accused of abetting a thief upside down from the city gate. This unexpected nod to Christianity is doubly striking for introducing one of only two women in the entire film, even if both have little more than walk-on roles.

Enter the hero. Bokayr (Arash Asefi), all tangled long hair and long-suffering eyes, is a proud young courtier of high moral standards, who attracts the degenerate Caliph’s unwanted attention in a memorable, and absolutely terrifying, bath scene. It includes an amusing example of the stilted rhetorical dialogue that plagues the film: “Your master’s desire is to be caught on your hook, pious boy.” Somehow avoiding the worst, Bokayr becomes Yazid’s special emissary, galloping through the desert from Damascus to Basra to Mecca with messages on a beautiful white steed that never becomes sweaty, winded or thirsty.

Muhammad’s grandson Hussein is the only member of the family who can challenge the corruption of the caliphate, and in an impressively filmed night scene lit by torches and filled with tension, Darvish and his ace cinematographer Hossein Jafarian create the image of a just and righteous man refusing to give his allegiance to Yazid and calling for jihad. Considering they can’t show his face and have only his disembodied voice to work with, it is an accomplishment that Hussein has a presence at all.

It’s a very long film to sit through, though the exotic beauty of Majid Mirfakhraei’s sets,Tariq Anwar’s pro editing and the fact that Bokayr bears a happy resemblance to a young Nicholas Cage make the time pass. But first there is a cruel contest with horses, deadly ambushes to escape from, and rabble-rousing in the town of Kufa, which has implored Hussein to come to its aid against Yazid. Although the Kufa townsfolk play a key role in the story, it is hard to warm up to them because, apart from looking a little CGI enhanced, they change sides at the drop of a chain-mail cap. 

Most viewers will be nervously awaiting the apocalyptic battle of Karbala, where the family of Hussein is forced to face off against Yazid’s far superior forces. Hussein’s saintly righteousness and determination to save Islam from corruption come across as a voice of freedom and dignity against tyranny – a message that could be read as revolutionary even today.

It was probably a good idea to turn the point of view over to the powerless young soldier Bokayr, who becomes a witness to history. For a character whose only activity has been to ride his horse around and stare at everyone with a look of dismay, the final battle offers him a chance to become a protagonist. Darvish, too, is on more confident ground once he puts aside the impenetrable dialogue and plunges into the action scenes, underlined by Stephen Warbeck’s passionate score that sweeps across the desert and swirls through the assembled forces. It feels fresh to see how the filmmakers are able to convey the horror of an epochal battle that will shape history, without ever showing death on-screen. Even if the outcome is known to Muslim viewers, the final scenes have a redeeming poetry about them that puts the emphasis in the right place.  

The multi-national cast includes actors from Syria, Kuwait and Iraq, not to mention Harry Potter wizard David Sterne.

Venue: Fajr Film Festival (competition), Feb. 3, 2014

Production company:  Tamasha Cultural Institute - Iran

Cast: Arash Asefi, Hassan Pourshirazi, Pouria Porsorkh, Anoosh Moazemi, Bahador Zamani, Farhad Ghaemian, Babak Hamidian, Jamal Suleyman, Shaghayegh Farahani  

Director: Ahmad Reza Darvish

Screenwriter: Ahmad Reza Darvish

Producers: Taghi  Aligholi Zadeh

Director of photography: Hussein Jafarian

Production designer:Majid Mirfakhraei

Editor: Tariq Anwar

Music: Stephen Warbeck

Sales Agent: Farabi Cinema Foundation

No rating, 150 minutes.