Like the book that inspired it, the new animated feature film, “Kahlil Gibran’s The Prophet,” opening at the Landmark Theater on Pico Blvd. in West Los Angeles Aug. 7, is full of soaring words and beautiful images.
It takes several of the most popular prose-poetry essays from the slim 1923 volume, wraps them in a story spun out from the book’s sparse plot, and renders them in a variety of animation styles from different artists, to the accompaniment of a lush score.
Written and directed by Roger Allers (“The Lion King”), “Kahlil Gibran’s The Prophet” features producer Salma Hayek (credited by her married name, as Salma Hayek-Pinault) as the voice of young widow Kamila, who lives on the imaginary Mediterranean island of Orphalese, which has a distinctly Turkish flavor. Her small daughter, Almitra (Quvenzhane Wallis), is mischievous but refuses to speak in the wake of her father’s death.
Kamila works as housekeeper for the poet and artist Mustafa (Liam Neeson), who has lived under house arrest for many years. One day, Kamila must take Almitra to work with her, and the troubled child and imprisoned writer strike up a friendship.
A ship is coming to supposedly return Mustafa to his homeland, but along the way, he shares his wisdom with Almitra and others.
The expansion of the book’s narrative for the movie casts Mustafa as a dissident whose words are dangerous to the regime. But, as anyone who’s read “The Prophet” knows, it’s a silky blend of paradoxes, aphorisms, spiritual-but-not-quite-religious themes and proto-New Age philosophy, so it’s a bit hard to see how any of it could set a country aflame.
For Catholics, the problem with “Kahlil Gibran’s The Prophet” is the same problem there is with “The Prophet” — it all sounds lovely, but it’s deity-free.
Born in Lebanon then raised from the age of 12 in the U.S., Gibran was a Maronite Catholic. But he fell under many influences along the way, including Islamic mysticism and the Baha’i Faith (and was supported by a number of adoring women).
After “The Prophet,” Gibran, who never married or had children, wrote a well-respected book about Christ, called “Jesus, The Son of Man.” But the interest in that book pales in comparison to its predecessor, which was embraced as near-dogma by spiritual seekers during the countercultural 1960s.
Hayek was also raised a Catholic, but as she told the U.K. Guardian last September in an interview coinciding with the film’s release at the Toronto Film Festival, “I am a spiritual person, but I am not a religious spiritual person. I don’t want anyone giving rules to my relationship with God or my spirituality.”
In the same piece, she also said, “I have respect for [Catholicism] and I got a lot of good things out of it. I believe in values that are very similar to Catholics.”
Speaking to The Tidings in Los Angeles last week, Hayek stayed with the same universalist theme.
“[Gibran] talks about the simple things of life that bring us all together, regardless of our differences. Love, death, food, children, marriage — he does it all with an appreciation of it,” she said.
“A lot of us, when we read it, you find a sentence — not all of it, but there’s a sentence here or there, and it’s not just Kahlil Gibran, but sometimes you find things that seem comforting and familiar to you, not because you’ve read them before,” Hayek added.
“But I believe that when this happens, it’s not because it’s your brain that’s talking to you, but it’s your soul that is telling you, ‘This is the truth.’ It’s very simple,” she said.
“This place that finds that connection, I believe it’s also where your instincts live. So, I was hoping that through this book, through this movie, when people see it, they would go to that place, even if it’s once or twice.”
While the movie’s setting echoes Turkey (fez hats and all), the atmosphere is not overtly Islamic. There is a Christian cemetery depicted — but that’s as close to religion as the film’s imagery gets.
In a way, this lack of focus on one faith reflects Gibran’s Lebanese identity (and Hayek’s, as her paternal grandfather came from Lebanon), as a native of the only Middle Eastern country that has Christians as a significant percentage of the population.
Along with Jordan and its neighbors, Lebanon has also taken in a huge number of refugees from civil-war-torn, hostile neighbor Syria.
That’s of particular interest to Hayek.
“This is not someone else’s problem,” she said. “This is four million refugees in these countries. They are very fertile ground for ISIS, and we’re pretending like this is not happening. It’s very important that we help them.”
Hayek does charity work with some of these camps, and she emphasizes that all religions represented are acknowledged and offered respect.
“They’re trying to create a new kind of environment where there is tolerance and unity,” she said.
So, if you want truly Catholic spirituality, “Kahlil Gibran’s The Prophet,” while a lovely, enchanting film, is not the place to find it. But if Hayek wants to create a template that could appeal to people of many faiths and foster a sense of shared experience, she’s succeeded.
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