The Face of the Prophet: Vittorio Storaro Photographs The Life of Mohammad
Vittoria Storaro’s ambitious new project is a collaboration with Iranian director Majid Majidi (Children of Heaven, The Song of Sparrows) on the production of Mohammad.
There are short segments at the beginning and end of the film where the adult Mohammad leaves Mecca and journeys to Medina where he becomes the prophet of Islam, but the installment Vittoria Storaro photographed—the first in a trilogy—covers the first 12 years of Mohammad’s life during the Sixth Century.
Vittorio Storaro (AIC, ASC*) was born and raised in Italy, and that is where he began his career—perhaps most notably with Bernardo Bertolucci. His evolving body of work includes some 60 narrative films and documentaries, including Bertolucci’s masterpiece, Last Tango in Paris. Storaro earned Academy Awards for his artful cinematography in Apocalypse Now, Reds and The Last Emperor, and garnered a fourth nomination for Dick Tracy. Film societies around the world have recognized his contributions to advancing the art with an array of other awards.
“I began reading a book about the life of the prophet Mohammad in order to better understand Islam while I was collaborating with (director) Rachid Benhadj on the production of Parfums d’Alger in Algeria in 2010,” Storaro says. “As soon as I finished reading the book, like a magic dream, I received an email asking if I was interested in filming the first part of a trilogy about Mohammad’s life.”
Majidi and producer Mehdi Heidarian visited Storaro in Rome in June, 2010.
“They explained that their goal was to have an international audience understand the story of the prophet Mohammad and the meaning of the Koran,” Storaro says. “I asked if the movie would divide or unite people of different religions. They said their goal was to unite people of different faiths. It’s a story about the dignity of human beings.”
After that initial exchange of ideas, Storaro read the Koran and another book about the life of the Prophet. He also visited museums and the National Library in Tehran, which house a vast array of texts, paintings, and sculptures from that period.
“Majid showed me a fantastic book of paintings by the great Iranian artist Mahmud Farshchjan that inspired my vision for the film,” Storaro said. Storaro wrote a detailed description of his vision for using the grammar of colors, light, shadows and darkness to augment the actors’ performances. Light was motivated by the sun, moon, and fires, as well as the spiritual and magic moments in the story.
“After Majidi approved, it served as my visual guide,” Storaro said. He brought makeup and hair stylists and a camera crew from Italy, but he rounded out his crew with Iranian craftsmen.
(*Editor’s note: Noor Ahmed Productions plans to release Farsi and English language versions of the film. The letters AIC and ASC after Storaro’s name indicate that he is a member of the Association of Italian Cinematographers and the American Society of Cinematographers.)
• Medium: Kodak Vision 3 color negative film. Exposure indexes ranged from 500 in 3200 K tungsten light to 50 in daylight. Aspect ratio: 2:1 “Univision” format (which Storaro developed); three-perforation frames.
Cameras: Three ARRI BL 535’s, one ARRI Lite camera for Steadicam shots, one ARRI 435 camera for recording high-speed images for slow motion scenes, and one ARRI 235 camera for helicopter shots.
• Grip: provided by Panalight in Rome and a Super Technocrane came from a vendor in the Czech Republic.
• Lighting: Iride Company, in Italy, provided lighting gear, including lightboards with silent dimmers.
• Locations: Scenes were filmed at practical locations in the ancient cities of Tehran, Asoloyeh, Mecca and Medina, the Kalut desert and on sets. (Storaro, Majidi and others on the production team communicated with the aid of an interpreter.)
• Lab: The exposed negative was shipped to Technicolor laboratory in Rome, which provided dailies in HD digital format.
• Production length: They began production in October, 2011. There were a few short breaks in the production schedule for Christian and Islamic religious holidays. Final scenes were produced on October 26, 2012.