“Bilal: A New Breed of Hero”

 

            This is a rare animated film made in the United Arab Emirates.  It's about the rise of Islam, without ever mentioning Islam.  It's about one of the closest advisors of Mohammed, without ever mentioning Mohammed.  Whether you view that as a clever way to get past the knee-jerk antipathy toward anything Muslim among certain circles, or whether you feel you've been somewhat hoodwinked by not being told the context, will probably predict how you'll feel about the movie.

            But to try to take it at face value:  Bilal is born into a free family, but when Bilal is still a little boy, bandits come and kill his Mother and take him and his sister into slavery.  They wind up being owned by Umayya (the voice of Ian McShane), a cruel and despotic merchant who worships local idols.  Bilal suffers persecution at the hands of both Umayya and his bullying, entitled son.  Umayya also gives Bilal's sister to his son as a gift, and Bilal becomes convinced that there should be no slavery.  In the marketplace he meets someone who tells him that there is only one God, and that all people are equal in God's sight, a view which appeals to Bilal so much that he even when he is tortured by Umayya, he doesn't recant his new convictions.  Finally, his new friend buys Bilal's freedom, and Bilal (the voice of Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje) joins this new movement (which is never called a “religion”).

            Now the backlash comes.  Umayya mounts an army to fight the adherents of the new movement, because Umayya sees it as threatening his power and control (he's right about that part).

Now comes the part of the movie that's puzzling, given that so far we've watched cute animated characters struggle against oppression and tyranny, and of course we want to root for them.  But now they've become an armed camp, delighting in pitched battles where they slay those who disagree with them.  (It's not called a “jihad,” but that's what it feels like.)  One particular battle scene is quite violent, with bloody hand-to-hand combat, and high casualties on both sides (including innocent horses).  Yes, it has a PG-13 rating, but there were many children in the screening I attended, because parents are going to assume that an animated feature is OK for little kids.  This one isn't.

            So now we fast-forward to Bilal as an old man, and he finally gets reunited with his sister.  But what we don't get is any mention of his own family (the “real” Bilal was married).  And the fact that he's the first “muezzin”-- the one who calls the others to prayer-- is only a postscript.  Yes, he's the Ethiopian hero in an Arab film, which is ecumenical enough in itself, but at the end of the day seems to be replacing one type of violent intolerance for another.  (Yes, we Christians have been known to indulge in that particular corruption of our ideals, as well.)

            Bilal, the freed orphan slave boy who loves his sister, gives us a sympathetic hero.  Bilal the bitter combat veteran with the murderous expression and blood dripping from his sword-----not so much.  But if you do choose to see it, you'll know a lot more about the early development of Islam.  Even if that's not what you intended by going to see an animated film.

 

Dr. Ronald P. Salfen, DFW Film Critics Association