Film review: The Lady of Heaven | Daniel Evans
It was on the bad side of OK. Unremarkable except for the religious controversy around it. Would have received a lower score if it wasn’t adequately produced and acted. The intended audience is probably Shia Muslims who already buy into the premises of the film. Otherwise the film effectively has two plots, one set in contemporary Iraq, and the other in 7th Century Arabia, loosely tied to each other, both unfocussed in their own ways. Don’t bother going to see this, even if you think you want to because oooh angry people and blasphemy. Come back when you have the Islamic version of the Life of Brian.
The full release
This film isn’t good enough to be offensive.
I can see why it elicited that kind of response though, beyond the more shallow and tame reasons relating to iconography/portrayal of religious figures and what that means to some Muslims. It’s obvious propaganda. You will see the cogs turning, it’s just not that sophisticated. This film and main story is just an excuse for pushing a whitewashed Shia version of history and religious interpretation.
In hindsight, the film sets itself up for a massive amount of self-righteous smugness right from the beginning. It issues caveats that the makers just want peace and that they took all care not to improperly portray Mohammad with real actors but rather cinema magic. In hindsight, these caveats seem disingenuous, like when someone says “with all due respect” or “I don’t mean to be rude but” before saying something intentionally disrespectful or rude. The audience will see what you’re trying to pull, film.
The film then introduces the main character, a boy called Laith, playing football with his pal. This is how you know he’s relatable and just like your average kid. ISIS rolls in, declares themselves in charge, and sets fire to a cage full of prisoners. A minute later, Laith is out for groceries with his mum and plays with a fidget spinner. This is how you know he’s relatable and just like your average kid. And hums a tune. This is how you know he’s relatable just like your average kid.
Except ISIS don’t like it, and turn up to gratuitously bloodily murder his mum in their flat in front of him, because if fidget spinners and humming weren’t bad enough, it turns out she has a bookmark praising someone called Fatima in her Quran.
Wow. That was a lot to take in during the first 5 mins of the film. And now that the film feels you are properly primed, it is time for you to take the real propagandistic payload.
Laith is hurriedly put in the care of some old lady and her soldier grandson. Family? Not sure, the film moved pretty quickly, and it doesn’t matter anyway, because it’s time for you to learn about Fatima. That’s the Lady of Heaven. You got that, right?
Yes, recounting the story of Fatima. Except it doesn’t really. Fatima rather takes a backseat to Mohammad and one of his underlings, Ali, for maybe three quarters of the entire 7th Century storyline.
Right. The film goes back 1,400 years to the Arabian peninsula, where some guys are building something. One of these guys is very, very shiny. The dialogue between characters at this point sounds like the old lady’s speaking style recounting the story. Device or bad writing? What are you building, the shiny man is asked. “The future”. Ah, bad writing. It’s not like this exactly the whole way through, curiously. Is this poor script editing or multiple writers? Whatever is going on, it’s detectable.
Anyway, this is one of the first points you can see why some Muslims would be offended. Are prophets in many, if any, western films about, say, Moses, made shiny? Not even Jesus gets that kind of treatment in Western films unless it’s tied to some particularly significant point like the nativity scene, or death on the cross, or resurrection. But Jesus in Christianity is the Word made flesh. Mohammad is supposed to be just a man. The film is at best treading a very careful line with idolatry, especially as Fatima, who is not even God’s representative on Earth, gets the same treatment.
Yet this is oddly balanced the other way as the film inconsistently avoids showing Mohammad’s face. When it is shown, the CGI, while noticeable, is pretty impressive. Fatima’s face is never shown, which makes for a very peculiar scene where father and daughter are reunited and it looks like two burlap sacks wriggling against each other.
For non-Muslims, perhaps it helps to view Fatima like Mary. Protestants do not understand the reverence Catholics have for Mary. Well, when Fatima is set to marry Ali, she asks for an unusual dowry. She asks for intercession for sinners so that they may enter heaven. Does that sound familiar? The film also later says that Mohammad blesses Ali and Fatima saying that whoever hurts and saddens them also hurts and saddens him. Jesus said to Peter that what he bound/loosened on earth would be bound/loosened in heaven (Matthew 16:19), which is used by Catholics to justify Peter and the Papal line and authority.
Anyway, this sort of selectively highlighted virtue in Fatima skips very quickly past a few things. The film says “sometimes the Imam Ali defeated evil without killing anyone”. Oh good. Sometimes he wasn’t a killer. Let’s just ignore how you made a big deal about how he was a super duper warrior. Sometimes he wouldn’t kill people. Later the film says how Mohammad was a very tolerant man toward his enemies in his own camp. He even took them with him on the first pilgrimage to Mecca after he liberated it from the pagans. Liberated. Yes. This after the film just showed a big battle scene against a bunch of pagans (which the Muslims lose, btw).
What was the point of this entire battle scene? Gratuitously bloody again. Nothing to do with Fatima. Mohammad loses and it seems to sow the seeds of doubt among his followers, but he does (unexplained and offscreen) get back on top again. Was this battle for production value? Did someone think it was cool to have a battle? They had the trope of big ole fighter getting sliced down by crafty and skilled little fighter Ali. Did you just need something to liven things back up again, film? Did you know things were going to sort of peter out later?
Whatever. Back to Fatima.
As if awe and reverence for Fatima, and a very curated portrayal of other main characters weren’t enough, the household of Mohammad with Ali and Fatima, and their two sons, are stuffed under a blanket and told by God that he will “purify you through a perfect purification” – told you the writing was dodgy – and that the universe was created just for the five people under that blanket.
What must that have looked like from the outside? This is why you have to have already bought into the story to not be sceptical. If you anonymised all the main characters, would you mistake this for the lore of a cult?
Anyway, if you hadn’t started to think this film looked a bit propagandistic by now, you probably only think this is good storytelling if you’ve already bought into it.
Nothing is earned. The story doesn’t build anything. It tells and doesn’t show. It signals very clearly the parts where you’re supposed to have a sense of awe or reverence. It doesn’t get you there naturally.
Unfortunately for the (almost certainly) Shia makers of this film, it’s where you really start to wonder if the Sunnis (who are the baddies in the film) rather have a point.
The story tries to convey legitimacy on a suspiciously nepotistic-looking set of decisions by Mohammad to appoint the son in law of his favourite (and only mentioned child in the film) daughter as the inheritor of Islam, and that their descendants should rule. This after the film tells us that God told five people under a blanket that he actually made the universe just for them?
The inheritors of Islam are supposed to be decided by lineage and esoteric rituals with cloaks behind closed doors, not by faith or the word of God, or even merit? Seriously, is Shia like a less successful Islamic Catholicism?
It’s also peculiar that the baddies in the 7th Century storyline in the film are all black. Yup, all black. Someone decided to cast all the baddies, despite their characters being Arabs from Arabia, as black. I’m just going to leave that one there. Maybe Aisha, also black in the film, is just like that because of childhood trauma. Otherwise it’s just way too on the nose for the film to compare her to a black widow spider and denounce her as poisonous. Come on, progressives, take the bait.
Anyway, it’s unfortunate for the film that the story loses any attempt at linking to divinity from here on out. Mohammad as Carlylean great man, whatever you think of Mohammad’s religious credibility, is dead, the visionary and organiser is clearly gone, and everything becomes much more petty and earthly.
It’s also at this point where, unfortunately for the filmmakers, Fatima’s importance becomes a lot more clear. Is Fatima a Shia cope? Shia Muslims either have to accept that Mohammad’s final prophecy, as stated in the film, that Ali would lead and his leadership line would continue through Fatima, is not true, or accept that Fatima’s quasi-prophecy that Islam would be bloody and split and thrown into darkness (come on progressives) for hundreds of years, unless Muslims united under Ali, would be right.
Right. What was the point of the old lady’s story about Fatima again? Quick, film, you had better remind us.
Suddenly the film is back in a 7th Century parallel of the film’s beginning in 2014 Mosul. The baddies break into Ali’s and Fatima’s house and start beating up Fatima who, because the film still won’t show her face and has her dressed in multiple layers of cloaks, looks unfortunately a lot like a cheap improvised punching bag, and the attack on Laith’s mum by ISIS is mirrored.
Fatima is harassed until the end of her days and it’s not really explained how, if at all, she was protected by Ali, though she clearly must have been, lives in a ramshackle tent called the House of Sorrow, succumbs to her wounds and dies while appearing very shiny.
Laith is very distressed and reveals that his mum was also called
Martha Fatima, to which the old lady replies “Oh, I’m sorry, I didn’t know”. Good grief. What a thing to say in such a deadpan way. Well, it wasn’t elegantly enough done to be a big surprise, or impactful, and it’s such a clumsy move I’m not sure it’s possible to have done it well at all.
Unfortunately, we’re not done yet.
As if the propaganda wasn’t enough already, Laith’s football pal from the beginning of the film makes a reappearance out of nowhere to suicide bomb a remembrance service for Fatima at a mosque. The shiny one, not the mother, stupid, that would be too human and relatable and not serve some sort of religious messaging push at all. Laith talks his pal out of it by saying this isn’t real Islam, this isn’t the real you, you’re just being tricked, and gives him a hug. There’s so much that we share, that it’s time that we’re aware it’s a small world after all.
Do not try this at home, duckies.
Laith’s hailed a hero on TV, told how brave he is, how his mum would be proud. In a parallel universe Dumbledore slaps Slytherin and gives Laith the House Cup.
But wait. Unfortunately we’re not done yet.
Here arrives, out of nowhere, a posthumous letter from mum to son, confirming how proud she is of him. Laith stares into the sunset across the rooftops of Baghdad.
Wow. That was a lot to fit into the last 5 mins of the film.
There you have it, duckies. Don’t go to see this film. It doesn’t live up to the hype. It’s not badly produced, or acted, put together, etc. it’s just brazen Shia propaganda. If this film or the idea of it offended you, don’t worry about it. Worry when they make a good propaganda film.
If you still really want to see it, there’s a mush at the Vue in Shepherd’s Bush.
Don’t do it though, really. It’s not even so bad it’s good. You know what, I’m revising my original score down to 3/10.