Even those who take diametrically opposed positions on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict should at least agree that Julian Schnabel’s film set against the background of the occupation isn’t very good. “Miral,” based Rula Jebreal’s semi-autobiographical book, is impassioned, but also dramatically disjointed and emotionally parched.
The multi-generational piece begins with the story of Hind Husseini (Hiam Abbass), a Palestinian woman who takes in a group of children orphaned in the 1947 Jewish takeover and establishes a school for girls that becomes a large and respected institution. One of the students is the daughter of Nadia (Yasmine Al Massri), a girl who had run away from home after being molested by her stepfather and served a stint in jail for attacking a Jewish woman; after her release she married Hind’s friend and neighbor Jamal (Alexander Siddig) and gave birth to the child, who is raised to believe that she’s his daughter. This is Miral (Freida Pinto), who grows up to be a beautiful adolescent, drawn into the intifada by Hani (Omar Metwally), a young Palestinian man with whom she falls in love. That will lead to her arrest and torture by Israeli authorities.
That’s the essential drift of the film, but it’s presented with so many digressions and lacunas that viewers not knowledgeable in the historical background will have a difficult time following things. The factionalism within the Palestinian resistance, for example, is part of the background to Miral’s romance and Hani’s eventual murder, but it’s never explored adequately. True, Schnabel periodically inserts archival footage and printed explanations to set the stage, but the practice is only partially successful, as well as undermining any narrative energy the ponderous picture has managed to create.
And some parts of the picture—like an episode in which Miral, released from custody, spends time with her aunt and her son Samir (Doraid Liddawi), who’s involved with a Jewish girlfriend (Stella Schnabel)—seem extraneous. A good deal of time is given to that subplot, which is then abruptly dropped and never taken up again. The same might be said of the material involving Fatima (Ruba Blal), a Palestinian inmate with whom Nadia shares her prison time. Her backstory is interesting—she’s serving three consecutive life sentences for trying to blow up a movie theatre—and it gives rise in flashback to the most suspenseful sequence in the film as her failed mission is recounted (a nice touch: the movie being shown is “Repulsion”). But again it leads nowhere. This sort of thing makes the picture seem fractured and meandering. And there are too many points at which the script veers into simple didacticism, with the characters spouting dialogue that sounds like political speech rather than human discourse.
As to performances, Pinto—an Indian who was in “Slumdog Millionaire”—is fine, but an strange choice in a picture so concerned with Palestinian identity. Abbass is her usual strong self (though her aging makeup is poor), and Siddig is quietly intense. But the other players are at best adequate. And having Vanessa Redgrave and Willem Dafoe turn up in pointless cameos is inexplicable.
One presumes that the occupation the Palestinians have suffered for more than a half-century is a subject about which Schnabel feels deeply, and can sympathize with the difficulty he must have had simply making the picture on location. (The recent murder of one of the supporting actors, Juliano Mer-Kharmis, apparently by Palestinian militants who considered him too moderate, is evidence of the danger that’s constant in the region.) And presumably that has something to do with its look—the visuals are unrelievedly drab, and Eric Gautier’s shaky hand-held camerawork hard to endure. (Schnabel, of course, prefers a modernistic pseudo-haphazard style, so that has to be taken into account as well.)
But passion and good intentions are not enough. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and the violence that’s been perpetrated on both sides, are important subjects, and complex ones. Neither as history nor as drama does this film do them justice.