A U.N. premiere! A Vanessa Redgrave cameo! Zionist hoodlums! Distributors the Weinstein Company and director Julian Schnabel overcome their well-documented aversion to media attention to address the Israel-Palestine question, pleading peace, compromise, and the creation of a self-governing Palestinian state. While Jewish advocacy groups swarm to Schnabel’s bait, it bears noting that Miral is a very flat, fuddled movie, an at-odds-with-itself partisan work, its convictions diffused in a warm soak of style.
Schnabel’s fifth film, like most of its predecessors, has its roots in biography; the source is the fictionalized life story of Rula Jebreal, an Italian journalist of Palestinian origins, who adapted her own novel for the screenplay. Miral seeks to reflect the entwined destinies of the Jewish-Israeli and Palestinian people through both the personal history of the title character and the formative experiences of those (mostly women) who in turn would form her. The film is bracketed by the days just before Israel’s birth in 1948 and the 1993 Oslo peace accord, the failed promise of which is held up as a reprimand.
Like Jebreal, Miral (played as a child by Yolanda El Karam) was raised partly, in the ’80s, at the Dar Al-Tifel school in Jerusalem run by Hind Husseini (Hiam Abbass). As in Jebreal’s multigenerational novel, Miral doesn’t take over the story bearing her name until the halfway point is in sight. The films opens with Husseini on her way to celebrate Christmas Eve 1947, at Jerusalem’s American Hotel. Paradise-lost nostalgia for an inclusive, cosmopolitan British Mandate for Palestine is followed by civil strife in the newly founded state of Israel, where Husseini adopts a group of war orphans, the first pupils in her charity school.
Husseini endures through the ’67 Six-Day War, handing off the relay-storyline to Nadia (Yasmine Al Massri), whose abridged, unhappy life ends with her daughter’s inheriting the eponymous narrative. As the First Intifada (1987–93) demands choosing sides, teenage Miral (Freida Pinto) wavers between the militancy preached by handsome revolutionary Hani (Omar Metwally); the dictates of her pious father, Jamal (Alexander Siddig); and the nonviolent teachings of mentor Husseini—though Abbass’s moral authority is somewhat compromised by an aging makeup transformation that turns her into The Golden Girls’ Sophia. Casting Pinto, an Indian actress, as his lead complicates Schnabel’s gesture of solidarity with the cause of Palestinian self-determination. And though the Slumdog Millionaire actress is a supernal beauty, she never asserts an independent presence transcending “Radiant Face of Young Palestine” poster girl.
Schnabel’s dashed-glimpse style vitiates the efforts of his performers, but frees cinematographer Eric Gautier to improvise, as with a scene opening on a belly dancer’s twitching hip; the nocturnal-blue, blurry-subjective drunk-vision as Nadia weaves out of a bar; a p.o.v. suicide-by-drowning; the countdown during an attempted movie-theater bombing by a militant nurse, cut at an ever-accelerating tempo between an unsuspecting audience watching Roman Polanski’s Repulsion and the on-screen action. This scene dramatizes the dissonant idea of the nurturing-woman-turned-terrorist, as Hani’s fate will later illustrate the intra-Palestinian violence within the independence movement. Willem Dafoe appears as a U.S. officer sympathetic to Husseini’s humanitarianism; Stella Schnabel, the director’s daughter, as an open-minded young Jewish Israeli—credits to their people, both—while Redgrave, elder spokeswoman of Free Palestine, makes her symbolic appearance. Falling far short of the intuitive scene-to-scene storytelling the freewheeling camera implies, Miral is fussy checklist filmmaking, a scavenger hunt for the issues and representative characters that one simply must include in a panoramic survey of its subject.
Schnabel has done little to dam a sluggish river of stories and images to turn them into something powerful. Actual news footage of rock-hurling protesters blurs with scripted scenes of the Israeli army bulldozing a Palestinian home: These are pictures of people we scarcely know, suffering under circumstances we barely understand, and only further obscured by travelogue impressionism. For closing catharsis, Schnabel imports some maudlin Tom Waits caterwauling—a sure sign that this is the mediation of a sentimental American Boomer countless fathoms out of his depth. Hasn’t Jerusalem suffered enough?