Toronto Film Fest (Special presentation)–The fourth feature by the painter and filmmaker Julian Schnabel, “Miral” is a paradox mirroring its own subject–the contentious historical, religious and cultural divide of Palestinians and Israelis over the past five decades.
“Miral” is based on the fictionalized memoir of the journalist and writer Rula Jebreal. Dedicated by the director to the people who still believe in the possibility of peace, Schnabel’s new work marks a clear stylistic and formal continuum with his previous films. All of his films are tragic, melancholy portraits of artists and rebels trapped by circumstance, ranging from political repression, their own self-destruction or the specter of death.
Schnabel’s works have a visual tension and probing, active intelligence about the elective affinities of the form. Like the director’s immediate, highly acclaimed predecessor “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly,” “Miral” film draws on a range of visual influences and different syntax, entwining fiction and non-fiction. His goal is to illuminate the human scale of triumph, loss and despair that is the central and dynamic narrative of the Middle East after World War II.
Paradoxically, the movie’s greatest achievement, its visual audacity, is also its most prominent weakness, because the daring and reach of the film’s visual design is never quite equaled in the text’s content. “Miral” remains a work of a striking directorial perspective and personality, but the dramatic power is lessened.
After the prologue, which is set in 1944, “Miral” covers nearly five decades of history, moving from the 1947 formation of Israel to the 1994 Oslo Accords. Schnabel is again pursuing dramatically the superimposition of the past on the present, wishing to portray how individuals shape and fit into the larger historical framework.
“Miral” is really a symphony in four movements, each part connected to interior consciousness and public actions of a different woman. Hind Hussein (the great actress Hiam Abbas, last seen in “The Viistor”) is a wealthy Palestinian, who is personally transformed by the number of young refugees who are left stateless following the violence and disruption after the founding of Israel. Drawing on her family’s vast land and network of supporters and donors, she quickly creates a school.
Nadia (Yasmine Elmasri) is the tale’s second subject, an aggrieved and damaged woman who escapes a broken and abusive home life only to encounter a series of troubles. Getting by on her toughness, wits and striking sexuality, doing work on the side as a belly dancer and likely courtesan, she gets a six-month jail sentence for giving an Israel woman who had insulted her a black eye following a confrontation on a bus. During her prison stint,
Nadia establishes a strategic bond with Fatima (Ruba Blal), whose story marks the third movement.
A nurse catalyzed to action by the horror and destruction she had witnessed during the Six Day War (in 1967), Fatima is drawn into a terrorist cell network. In one of the movie’s most harrowing sequences, she recounts to Nadia her plan to detonate a bomb in a Jerusalem theater that shows Roman Polanski’s “Repulsion” (starring Catherine Deneuve). Nadia’s political activism lands her two consecutive life sentences.
Nadia meets Fatima’s handsome, accomplished brother (Alexander Sidding) and though she does not love him and is spectacularly defensive and unfaithful to him (even on their wedding day), the relationship produces a daughter, Miral (Freida Pinto, the girl of Danny Boyle’s “Slumdog Millionaire”).
As the film’s title suggests, Miral, the character, is the story’s connecting thread. The bulk of the narrative details her own political awakening as a teenager, who, as a result of the deterioration of her parents’ marriage, is sent to live at Hind’s academy. Significantly, her activism is sparked by the 1987 Intifada, the Palestinian uprising in the occupied territories.
Drawn to a handsome young man (Omar Metwally) in the network, Miral is caught between two radically different worlds, reacting against the acceptance of her father’s generation yet also wary of the extremism of her own generation. Her politicization is framed by the heavy-handed tactics of the settlers and the abusive practices of the military authorities. Problem is, Miral remains throughout the film something of a blank, even inchoate.
That said, “Miral” is often a visual marvel. Schnabel and the great French cinematographer Eric Gautier work in a highly direct and tactile way that endows the movie with a tremendous moment-to-moment excitement. The camera hovers and dances around the bodies of the actors, creating both moments of ecstasy and sorrow. (The interpolation of archival and newsreel footage is also sharply and evocatively handled.)
But there is awkwardness to the storytelling. Take, for example, the opening, in which Vanessa Redgrave (known for her pro-Palestinian politics) is poorly integrated into the larger story, or a small part played by Willem Dafoe as an American colonel who is clearly infatuated with Hind. “Miral” has dangling moments, but unlike Schnabel’s other three works, it lacks the verve and concentration of a dramatic center.
For all the beauty and wonder of the film’s images, the characters remain consistently outside our range of emotion or point of view. The Indian-born Freida Pinto is a startlingly beautiful woman, but authenticating details, like her accent, just seem off.
In “Miral,” the images beguile, but they never quite penetrate or get at the heart or depth of the story.