Every now and then, a film is made that embodies everything the medium was created to be – art. It is rare to find a cinematic experience that is both a story told with grace, while still being aesthetically pleasing. The animated adaptation of Kahlil Gibran’s beloved book, The Prophet, is just that: a breath of fresh air in world where animation is all about CGI and 3D.
The Lebanese philosopher’s book of 26 prose poetry essays, written in English, has never been out of print since it was first published in 1923. The film, which is produced by Salma Hayek, features eight of the essays as short sketches, each created and directed by a different animator, threaded together by a central plot.
In the fictional village of Orphalese, the poet, artist, and political activist, Mustafa (voiced soothingly by an Aslan-esque Liam Neesan), has been kept under house arrest for 12 years. He is tended by single mother, Kamila (Salma Hayek), who struggles to keep her young daughter, Almitra (Quvenzhané Wallis), in check. The little girl has been mute since her father’s death, preferring to communicate with seagulls by emulating their calls. The curious, well-meaning child is seen as a troublemaker by the villagers.
One day, Almitra skips school and follows her mother up the hill to the house where Mustafa is held. There she befriends the wise, gentle man, who himself has been labeled a troublemaker and instigator of sedition. “We are not imprisoned by houses or our bodies or other people. We are spirits free as the wind. It’s a secret not everyone knows,” he tells the little girl.
When the autocratic city authorities decide to ship Mustafa back to his home country, the sage makes his way through the village, where he is revered as a freedom fighter and wise philosopher. Accompanied by a mean-spirited sergeant (Alfred Molina), and surreptitiously followed by Almitra, Mustafa is stopped several times by groups of his faithful. Each time he delivers a short teaching about topics including work, death, eating, evil, freedom, love, and marriage. The simplicity and logic of the teachings are almost reminiscent of Zen philosophy.
“Let there be spaces in your togetherness, and let the winds of the heavens dance between you,” he tells a pair of newlyweds. “Love one another but make not a bond of love: let it rather be a moving sea between the shores of your souls. Fill each other’s cup but drink not from one cup. Give one another of your bread but eat not from the same loaf. Sing and dance together and be joyous, but let each one of you be alone, even as the strings of a lute are alone though they quiver with the same music. Give your hearts, but not into each other’s keeping. For only the hand of life can contain your hearts. And stand together, yet not too near together: for the pillars of the temple stand apart, and the oak tree and the cypress grow not in each other’s shadow.”
Each essay is uniquely, visually illustrated in styles ranging from geometric to surreal, to stylized. This goes back to the roots of animation, when everything was drawn and painted by hand. One tale is told in watercolour, strokes from an unseen brush colouring textured paper, an experience that’s almost tactile for the viewer. Others are done in crayon, and pastels. The effect is magical.
Ashamedly, I’d never come across Gibran’s writings before, and the film serves as an enticement to go find them and read them in their entirety. This is the kind of film you rarely find outside of the festival circuit, so it’s worth spending the money and watching it come alive on a big screen. The Prophet is spiritual rather than religious. It is about finding truth, about harmony with oneself, with others, with life, with the world. It is a story told with grace, in a piercing and powerful way.
Director: Roger Allers
Voice cast: Liam Neeson, Salma Hayek, Frank Langella, Alfred Molina, Quvenzhané Wallis
Rating: 4 out of 5
SA release date: 8 October 2015