Tuesday, May 10, 2005

A Kingdom of Conscience: Movie Review

It is a rarity that sees me at the cinema. I do not easily fork out 7 dollars to watch a movie at the theatre, and so I restrict myself to films that interest me personally. These usually include filming projects I have been tracking from inception to release, and Kingdom of Heaven is one of them.

In this review on IMDb.com, it cites both negative and positive aspects of the reaction of the public. Apparently, a muted hue is being raised by both Muslims and Christians on inaccuracies in the film, and Roger Ebert cites this as a clear sign that Sir Ridley Scott, of Gladiator and Aliens fame, got something right. Although I see no logic in that kind of reasoning, even if it comes from a critic as respected as Mr. Ebert, it is indeed my opinion, that anybody from either the Muslim or Christian camp that cites discrepancies to affect in any significant way their experience of this film, is simply being over-critical.

Orlando Bloom, playing the lead character Balian of Ibelin, is the newest pretty boy in Hollywood. Although I concede that his Elvish charm on Lord of the Rings: Fellowship of the Ring did catch my eyes, it would be unfair to the art of acting to call him a good practitioner of it. He has consistently been the weakest link in all the films he has appeared in, and though I believe he will some day hone his skill to the level of the peers in his film (Jeremy Irons, Brendan Gleeson, Marton Csokas, David Thewlis, and Liam Neeson), he was drowned by their charisma and fluidity.

Forgiveness for Mr. Bloom's rigidity, however, comes from the script. If the script was indeed written for Mr. Bloom, it compensated well for his inadequacies as a thespian. The character design of Balian of Ibelin was of a man of a stoic disposition and intense concision. Therefore, although he has more screen-time than any other of the main characters, he probably has the lowest word-count per sentence, and the highest "gaze-time," time spent just looking at people's faces.

Even rookie actor, Ghassan Massoud, who has very little screen-time as the great Salahuddin Ayyubi, does a better job at the art of acting than Mr. Bloom. In fact, apparently, Mr. Massoud is a scholar! Sheikh Massoud?

The look and feel of this great Muslim hero and legend was extremely well-executed. The rugged Arab handsomeness shines through Mr. Massoud's general stature. His facial and bodily build is of what I perceive as a classical Yemenite Arab, (not dissimilar to Osama bin Laden, who is in fact Yemeni): wiry, a long, thin face, a complete lack of cheek tissue, a very Semitic, aquiline nose, intense dark eyes, and a beard greying majestically at the edges. However, we will recall, this is the nitpicking section, and I am not done yet: Salahuddin Ayyubi was a Kurd!

It is in Mr. Scott's good fortune that the vast majority of people are not familiar with Kurds, because if they were, I assume they would be aware that Kurds are not too distant from Arabs in appearance and stature. Therefore, this is not an issue of much significance to grapple with.

Salahuddin Ayyubi's sister, whose appearance in the film is both sudden and fleeting, was, I must admit, very impressive. Surprisingly portrayed by Puerto Rican Giannina Facio, her likeness was that of a romantic and classically beautiful Arab woman. Dark eyes to drown in, and the hawkish features that gives Arab women a certain aura of rugged, untamed earthliness, as opposed to the palpably angelic grace of European women.

Hollywood's record in portraying the Muslim prayer has not been a good one. From Antonio Banderas's awkward genuflections in The Thirteenth Warrior, to the fleeting view of debasing, repetitive earth-kissing in the Animatrix, it has consistently been done by people who find the entire concept alien to the very core, clumsily bolted on as a token to an ethnic minority than anything else.

Although the editing of the film dictated the most "dramatic" portions of the Muslim prayer were shown (the prostration and bowing), it was done well. There was no reason for it not to be, since Moroccan soldiers were recruited as extras for the film. I was disappointed, however, because I thought from the trailer, they would feature the Prayer of Fear, a system of prayer employed by the Muslims to fulfill the duty of the five daily prayers even under the risk of attack. Its organized elegance has been one I have secretly wished for a very long time to be portrayed on-screen.

In addition, it is noted in one scene that Muslims were praying in congregation during the Adhaan, or the call to prayer, an oddity to most Muslims. I forgive wholeheartedly, however, because the Adhaan and prostration are both very "dramatic," and the post-production team just couldn't help but couple them.

When I saw the trailer, I thought it was going to be one that glorified knights, and was somewhat disgruntled. The knights of the Crusades were not consistent in their chivalry, and are known to be infamously inhumane to many of their extra-faith victims. However, the movie does not glorify knights, and in fact belittles the majority of those who call themselves knights, for which I am grateful.

The script focuses on men of moderation: King Baldwin, Balian of Ibelin, his father Godfrey and his friend Hospitaler, Tiberias, Salahuddin Ayyubi and his assistant Naser. Contrasted to them are warmongers, Guy de Lusignan, Reynald de Chatillon, and Khaled Nabawy of the Muslim camp.

If I counted the number of jabs at Christian extremism to the number of jabs at Muslim extremism, the former would outnumber the latter in the ratio of (all of the jabs at Christian extremism) to 1. That's right, there was only one jab at Muslim extremism in the entire film that I noticed, primarily because Muslims had less screen-time.

The Arabic dialogue was in classical Arabic, and I actually understood a great deal of it, which was very gratifying.

In the end, it was a very good film, and I respect Mr. Scott for his efforts. He executed this touchy topic adeptly and admirably, and for that, he deserves our praise and appreciation as Muslims. The amount of respect shown toward Muslims borders on romanticism, and considering Hollywood's long-standing record at insensitivity and ineptitude at handling this significant minority, I am honored by his efforts.

Update: Seems some people are happy.

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I write essays in my spare time on things that are important to me. The ones that I feel are any good, or make any sense, I put them up here. :)