Kahlil Gibran’s The Prophet

During my last two summers in high school, I worked in the Little Professor Book Store in the Town and Country Shopping Center in my home town of Columbus, Ohio. It wasn’t a bad summer job for a kid and for the most part I enjoyed it. My favorite task was unboxing the new inventory and shelving it. It gave me an excuse to explore areas of the store other than the science fiction section which was all I was interested in when I was a frequent customer before being hired.
As I recall we stocked The Prophet by Kahlil Gibran in the religious section. Now let me admit up front that I’ve never been a particularly spiritual person and so I’ve never been interested enough to actually read it. But I do love books and the store always had pretty editions of The Prophet with the author’s illustrations, leather covers, gilt edged pages and a book mark sewn into the spine much like the Bibles. Obviously this was way before the Internet and I wasn’t curious enough about it to go to the library and find out anything about the author.
But now we have Wikipedia and I can report to you that Kahlil Gibran was a poet, philosopher and artist who was born in 1883 in what was then the Ottoman Empire. He was raised as a Maronite Catholic and his work was influenced by Sufism, the mystical sect of Islam that produced the whirling dervishes. As a child he moved with his mother to Boston, where he learned English, art and literature. He published The Prophet in 1923 and it has never been out of print since. Its themes resonated with the counterculture in the sixties and the New Age movement afterward.
As I understand it, The Prophet is a series of prose poems on various aspects of life. The frame story concerns the titular prophet Mustafa, voiced by Liam Neeson in the movie, who is being exiled from the island of Orphalise, by the authorities working for a repressive Pasha. Along the way he encounters peasants who his words have affected and delivers these lectures.
This film adaptation is the brainchild of Salma Hayek who acquired the rights from the Gibran estate and produced the film as well as doing the voice of Kamila, who worked as a maid for Mustafa during his seven years of house arrest.
Roger Allers serves as supervising director but the film is divided into segments, each interpreting one of Gibran’s poems read by Neeson and in two cases sung by others and set to music. Each segment is directed by a different director, including one by the great Bill Plympton. One might expect such an arrangement to produce unevenness but Allers does a good job of incorporating the different styles into the whole and creating clever and smooth transitions into the frame story. Mustafa’s journey down the mountain from his house to the seaport is an allegory for life and his lectures reflect that. He starts with a few words of wisdom to Kamila who is worried about her daughter, who hasn’t spoken since her father died and ends with his thoughts on death. I suspect this structure was from Gibran himself but the filmmakers were wise to adopt it.
For someone with such mystical influences, Gibran’s philosophy is pretty down to earth. He advises letting children find their own way, comparing birth to the shooting of an arrow because you have no control over the flight once the arrow clears the bow. He advises married couples to give each other space and to not try and control each other completely. He contends that there is nobility in work if it is done well. It is all practical advice, most of it common sense. Except for the mention of reincarnation and the symbology of the Hand of Fatima—the palm of a right hand with an eye in the middle of it, which has been used as a charm to ward off evil in the middle east for centuries—there isn’t a whiff of divine intervention in these words.
Gibran’s mysticism lies in his metaphors and imagery. And here the filmmakers have chosen the correct method for interpreting The Prophet. Animation allows the segment directors to bring these images to life. They morph and twist into other images in a way that only an imaginative animator can pull off. This is a very beautiful and inventive film.
You also might expect a project like this to be incredibly pretentious. In fact there is a humbleness that pervades this film that I find quite appealing. This is kitchen table wisdom, something your parents might tell you when you ask for advice. The film, and I assume the book, doesn’t ask you to buy into a grand theological world view; it barely mentions God at all. The frame segments are done in a familiar and reassuring ink and paint animation style, reminiscent of hundreds of films. The colors are mostly muted browns and greens that are very reassuring.
I have to say that I’ll probably never read The Prophet, but I’m not sorry I saw this movie.

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