By Merle Bertrand | March 21, 2006

Muslims aren’t coming across so well in the news media these days. Whether they’re seen furiously firing guns in the air at funerals in newspaper photographs or angrily burning (pick a Western country’s) flags in an anti-cartoon snit on CNN, the glowering visages of Islamic Fundamentalists have become the de facto face of Muslims everywhere in this post 9-11 world.

Suffice it to say, then, that Islam could use a good PR person. If Muslims were to, hypothetically speaking, hire such a person, one way the new hire could immediately begin to dispel such negative stereotypes is by recommending that everyone watch the exotic Islamic epic “The Keeper: The Legend of Omar Khayyam.”

Lifting a page from “The Princess Bride”, “The Keeper…” employs contemporary protagonists as storytellers to introduce us to the 11th Century world of Omar Khayyam. In this case, it’s Nader (Puya Behinaein) who, though dying of leukemia, is carrying on the ancient Persian tradition of storytelling and oral history by teaching his younger brother Kamran (Adam Echahly) about Omar’s history as a poet and scholar.

It’s a tale that begins when Omar, a young boy about Kamran’s age, becomes a student of Imam Muaffak (Rade Serbedzija) following his father’s sudden death. Young Omar quickly befriends Hassan, a young boy about his age, and together with his best friend Darya, a young slave girl, the threesome seems inseparable.

Years later, Omar (Bruno Lastra) returns home, only to learns that Darya (Marie Espinosa) has been sold. After he and Hassan (Christopher Simpson) return from an unsuccessful search for the missing beauty, their failure to find her, combined with years of their unspoken rivalry for her affections have taken their toll. Though their destinies remain intertwined, the path of Omar, now a man of learning, science, and reason, has diverged from that of the fierce and fiery proto-jihadi Hassan. Whereas Omar tries to channel his grief at lost love into educating and advising their shallow, if well-meaning new leader, Sultan Malikshah (Moritz Bleibtreu) on how to keep the crusading Byzantines at bay, Hassan turns his rejection into a fanatical, religiously-fueled insurrection against Malikshah. Like ill-fated brothers on opposing sides of the American Civil War, Omar and Hassan seem destined to cross paths eventually.

If nothing else, director Kayvan Mashayekh succeeds at restoring some of the romance and luster to an ancient civilization and its religion, both of which would probably score lower than broccoli in public opinion polls nowadays. There are probably one too many story threads and/or sets of characters to keep track of here, what with the film’s parallel timelines, and the film has a tendency to sort of force feed a few plot points, (i.e. why, exactly, does Hassan become a terrorist just because he failed to find Darya?)

Even so, Mashayekh’s film takes full advantage of its magnificent locations. Combined with its beautiful costumes, sweeping score and well-nuanced performances by a cast of talented unknowns, (bit parts by C. Thomas Howell and Vanessa Redgrave notwithstanding), “The Keeper…” goes a long way towards portraying the humanity of an oft-vilified culture.

Gleaming like a well-polished magic lamp on a vibrant Persian rug, “The Keeper: The Legend of Omar Khayyam” showcases Arabian/Muslim culture at its best and brightest. Too bad al-Qaeda, the Taliban, or today’s Iranian thugocrats wouldn’t know beauty and culture if it bit ‘em in the a*s.

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