Here in this Persian replica of Mecca, built at the cost of millions of dollars, an Iranian film company is attempting to offer the world a literal glimpse of the Prophet Muhammad despite traditional taboos against it.
The movie "Muhammad, Messenger of God" already recalls the grandeur — and expense — of a Cecil B. DeMille film, with the narrow alleyways and a replica Kaaba shrine built here in the remote village of Allahyar. But by even showing the back of the Prophet Muhammad as a child before he was called upon by Allah, the most expensive film in Iranian history already has been criticized before its even widely released, calling into question who ultimately will see the Quranic story come to life on the big screen.
"How should we introduce our prophet?" asked Majid Majidi, the film's director. "Many relay their messages to the world through cinema and pictures."
In American cinematic history, films involving the Bible often find the biggest audience and box office returns. Biblical stories have inspired dozens of films from the 1920s all the way to recent blockbusters like "Noah" starring Russell Crowe and Ridley Scott's biblical epic "Exodus: Gods and Kings."
But in Islam, portraying the Prophet Muhammad has long been taboo for many. Islamic tradition is full of written descriptions of Muhammad and his qualities — describing him as the ideal human being. But clerics generally have agreed that trying to depict that ideal is forbidden. The Paris terror attack on the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, which killed 12 people in January, saw gunmen target it over its caricature of the prophet.
But while Sunni Islam, the religion's dominant branch, widely rejects any depictions of Muhammad, his close relatives or companions, Shiite Islam doesn't. In Shiite powerhouse Iran and other countries, posters, banners, jewelry and even keychains bear the images of Muhammad's son-in-law Ali, revered by Shiites who see him as the prophet's rightful successor. The late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomenei, who led Iran's 1979 Islamic Revolution and later became the country's supreme leader, reportedly even kept a picture similar to young Muhammad in his room for years.
In the new 190-minute film, the story focuses on Muhammad's childhood, never showing his face. The movie instead uses others to tell his story, like his grandfather Abdul-Muttalib, portrayed by Iranian actor Ali Reza Shoja Nouri.
"It was a very heavy role," Nouri told The Associated Press. "I cannot express my feelings about it."
For his vision, Majidi hired Academy Award winning visual effects supervisor and filmmaker Scott E. Anderson, three-time Oscar-winning Italian director of photography Vittorio Storaro and music producer Allah-Rakha Rahman, who won two Academy Awards for his work on "Slumdog Millionaire."
By making a high-quality film, Majidi said it will give the world the right impression about the Prophet Muhammad. He blamed Islamic extremists and the West for sullying the image of a pillar of faith for 1.5 billion people across the world.
"For Muslims, the Prophet Muhammad is a mercy to the world and the hereafter," he said.
Yet, the film already has seen widespread criticism even before being widely released, largely from predominantly Sunni Arab countries. In February, Egypt's Al-Azhar, one of Sunni Islam's most prestigious seats of learning, called on Iran to ban a film it described as debasing the sanctity of messengers from God. Meanwhile, the Sunni kingdom of Qatar has announced plans to have its own $1 billion epic shot on the prophet's life.
Majidi said he would be ready to cooperate with any Islamic country planning a film on Muhammad.
"We are ready to cooperate to produce any movies to introduce Muhammad to the world," Majidi said. "We are an Islamic country, we know the related culture and we have capabilities for production of such movies."
So far, the film appears to have the support of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran's current supreme leader, who attended an inauguration of the film's set in 2012.
Iranian film critics generally have praised the film as well, like Mostafa Seyedabadi, who declared its color and lighting as "astonishing," However, critic Masoud Farasati dismissed some of the film's shots, like a low-angle view of the prophet as a teen against the sky, as a "Hollywood" knockoff.
Producers plan to ultimately release the film in Arabic, Persian and English, with showings across Iran and abroad in the summer. Filming took a year, while postproduction in Germany took two more years. And if this film is successful, its producers say they hope to film two sequels, one focusing on Muhammad's life from his teenage years to his 40s and another after 40 when he became the prophet of Islam.
Mohammad Mahdi Heidarian, head of the private Nourtaban Film Industry company, said his company spent about $30 million in total to make the movie. He and others declined to elaborate on who provided financial backing for it, though there are wealthy investors and religious institutions in Iran that likely would support such efforts.
In the past, such religious films have done well in Iran. The 1977 Quranic epic "The Message," starring Anthony Quinn as the uncle of the unseen and unheard prophet, drew crowds and long lines to movie theaters in Tehran. And another that did well was DeMille's own 1956 film, "The Ten Commandments," with Charlton Heston playing the sea-parting prophet Moses. It's yet to be seen whether Majidi's film will be led into the promised land of a wide release.