Julian Schnabel, the outsize personality and eccentric painter who has become an intermittently wonderful filmmaker, has made a dutiful and well-meaning movie in Miral, the saga of an Arab girl in Israel and the school that fosters her and protects her from the rough life of refugee camps. It seems Schnabel has all of a sudden discovered that he’s a Jew, or at least finally decided that fact might have some significance to him and us; and has found out there is something called a Palestinian people. Both important awarenesses. And these two facts are interconnected by tragedies of history — though the director, who’s adapting an autobiographical novel by the suspiciously beautiful Rula Jebreal, isn’t directly a part of the connections between them. He might have done better to keep these two awarenesses to himself till such time as a project truly worthy of his talents and originality came along.
As Miral is dutiful, it may also perform a useful function for some viewers. It traces the history of a region from the founding of the state of Israel in 1948 (David Ben Gurian is shown in documentary footage declaring this event in Hebrew at a formal governmental occasion). There’s also the founding of a school for orphaned Palestinian girls which Vanessa Redgrave and Willem Dafoe briefly have something ceremonial to do with, more to lend their well known star quality than any useful purpose. And we’re led up to the1967 June war in which a lot of land inhabited by Arabs became occupied Israeli territories and a process of colonization and expulsion and destruction began that still goes on today. We skip forward to the first Intifada in 1987, when Palestinian youths responded with direct action to years of humiliation. And we wind up some time in the 1990’s when the Oslo accords gave Palestinians a momentary hope of peace and a state, and Miral, the young woman whose story is intertwined with that of the school, after flirting with the radical activism of her mother, is sent off to finish her education in Italy and the director of her school, played by Hiam Abbas, passes away. End of story, signaled by a song by Tom Waits.
Miral has some good moments and some awful ones, and many that are just familiar and flat. But first of all, Schnabel has made some big mistakes. The use of a constantly wooozy hand-held camera is a gimmick that has become passé. Far more effective in turbulent moments is for the people to move and not the camera — though to do him credit, cinematographer Eric Gautier does give us a variety of colors and styles. Next there’s the problem of language. English is not generally the tongue of choice in which Palestinians express themselves to family members in their most intimate moments. This should be a film in Arabic and Hebrew, not heavily accented English. Casting problems start almost imperceptibly with the admirable Hiam Abbas (of The Syrian Bride, Lemon Tree and The Visitor), to whom the part of the rock-solid headmistress and protectress Hind Husseini may seem a kind of ideal heroic role. She plays it with the appropriate gradually aging nobility and decade-appropriate hair colors and coiffures. But it’s time for someone to make an English language issue film involving Arabs that does not feature her. On the other hand, casting a young actress from India, Freida Pinto of Slumdog Millionaire, be she ever so vivacious and beautiful, as the adult Miral, is as jarring and peculiar as the dominance of English in the scenes.
In Basquiat Schnabel’s recreation of the Eighties superstar art world (which he knew first hand himself) has an amazing freedom. It’s both witty and spot-on. Likewise his recreation of the experience of the totally paralyzed protagonist played by Mattieu Amalric in The Diving Bell and the Butterfly has touches of genius because it’s bold and free. That doesn’t happen very often in Miral. Schnabel is preaching to us, and maybe to himself. It’s a good moment when, in a Sixties flashback involving Fatima (Ruba Blal), whom Miral’s mother Nadia meets in prison, we see a woman planting a bomb in a movie theater where a very threatening set of clips of Polanski’s Repulsion are playing. Although the story rarely gets into the real nitty-gritty of day to day Arab-Israeli conflict, there’s a moment when Miral gets to know Lisa, a young (Jewish) Israeli woman dating one of Miral’s cousins, who really seems like who she is, and for a moment the possibility of Arab-Israeli understanding of the sort piously alluded to later seems some kind of possibility. Lisa is played by Schnabel’s daughter Stella, and she and her subplot seem promising and unfortunately brief.
Another promising segment comes when Miral becomes dangerously enamored of an intense young PLO activist called Hani (Omar Metwally). But neither Miral nor the movie becomes more than superficially involved in the issues Hani struggles with, even though she’s arrested and beaten for her suspected connection with him. When Miral’s mother gets out of prison much earlier, she marries a pious Muslim, Jamal (Alexander Siddig of the discreet, if limp Cairo Time) and her “Baba” (Daddy) becomes a sanctimonious constant of the rest of the film, curiously dumping Miral in the girl’s school (designed for orphans), hiding from reality most of his life, yet somehow held up as a model of good behavior.
The trouble with the movie overall is that it’s a travelogue through modern Palestinian history whose titular central figure may or may not be a person of interest. We don’t get to see enough of her to know. Her name, said to refer to a flower commonly found along the roadside, leaves her innocuous. Ultimately Miral is more about ideas and events than people, but doesn’t focus on these with enough intensity. Altogether despite much location scenery and people (that could have given flavor to a properly conceived film about Palestinians in Israel) the result is so wishy-washy one tends to believe those who say Juliian Schnabel really fell for the author of this, not the book. Photos of the director and the author show they are, indeed, a couple. Schnabel did not mate as successfully this time with his material.
DIRECTOR: Julian Schnabel
STARS: FRIEDA PINTO, HIAM ABBAS, ALEXANDER SIDDIG, YASMINE ALMASRI, MAKRAM KHOURI, WILLEM DAFOE
RUNTIME: 112 MIN
COUNTRY: FRANCE, ISRAEL, ITALY, INDIA