At the recent Camerimage International Film Festival in Poland, I had the pleasure of chatting with Vittorio Storaro, ASC, AIC, prior to the screening of his new film, the Iranian production Muhammad: The Messenger of God.
American Cinematographer will publish an in-depth article about Vittorio’s work on the picture closer to its U.S. release. My goal was to get a more personal glimpse of his experience on the project, which is Iran’s submission for this year’s Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Feature.
Vittorio recalled for me that in 2007, he did extensive preparation for a film about the journey of Jesus of Nazareth titled Kingdom Come, to be directed by Dean Wright in New Zealand. Unfortunately, that project stalled. In 2010, Vittorio worked on a film about the condition of women in the Islamic world, and while educating himself about Islam and the history of Arabia, he was taken by the story of Muhammad and struck by the parallels between the prophet’s life and that of Jesus. (Anyone who has heard Vittorio speak knows his predilection for symmetry and balance.)
As he finished a book about the life of Muhammad and laid it on the table, a blinking light on his computer indicated the arrival of an email. It was an agent in Los Angeles, asking if he would be interested in accepting a proposal from director Majid Majidi to make the film that would become Muhammad. “And I said, ‘Oh, my god!’” Vittorio recalls. “Incredible! The fact was once again proved: If you love something and believe in something, you send messages of real energy out. Somebody captures these messages. That’s what happened. I found myself ready, personally, to accept such a project.”
I asked Vittorio how his subsequent immersion in Islamic art fit in with his lifelong study of painters, which is detailed beautifully in the book Storaro and Covili: The Sign of a Destiny. He spent many hours in museums, feasting his eyes on paintings, including miniatures from the 10th and 11th centuries. He scoured libraries and absorbed books of paintings that Majidi presented. He even got a glimpse of some portrayals of Muhammad that are kept under wraps because of the Islamic injunction against graven images, which equates such likenesses with idolatry.
Vittorio told me the story of a revelation he had as a young man: “I did five years of photography school and four years of cinematography school, so my education was almost completely technical. But I realized a few years later that I was missing something. I remember the day I went into a little church and saw Caravaggio’s painting The Calling of St. Matthew. I realized that this genius was able to transfer and visualize just the beam of light, and through it he realized the relationship between humanity and divinity.”
Vittorio traces a connection between that and the pure white light he employs in Muhammad.
Here are a few collages he created using images from the film:
Vittorio recalled that in his first face-to-face conversation with Majidi at his home in Rome, he said to the director, “Let’s have honesty between us. Is the underlying concept of this project to divide the different religions, or to try to unite them?”
Majidi replied that his goal was to unite, and that Muhammad was not intended to reach only Muslims. Majidi hoped to distribute the project throughout the world, and he believed that collaborating with Vittorio, an internationally renowned cinematographer, would help give the project international appeal.
“Particularly in light of the recent tragedies in Paris, Muhammad should be shown everywhere,” says Vittorio. “Its message is that Muhammad is not only a messenger of God, but also a messenger of peace. That is very important.”
Majidi also attended Camerimage, where he and Vittorio received the festival’s Outstanding Duo Award. Majidi noted, “The groups who carried out the terrorist attacks in Paris and other places claim to be the representatives and torch-bearers for Islam, but, in fact, they have nothing to do with Islam. Islam is a religion of love, tolerance and openness toward other religions and other believers.”
Muhammad: The Messenger of God will play a special one-week engagement at the Laemmle Music Hall in Los Angeles starting Dec. 11.