Friday, March 25, 2011

Movie Review: Miral

Miral **
Directed by: Julian Schnabel.
Written By: Rula Jebreal based on her novel.
Starring: Freida Pinto (Miral), Hiam Abbass (Hind al-Husseini), Yasmine Al Massri (Nadia), Ruba Blal (Fatima), Alexander Siddig (Jamal), Omar Metwally (Hani), Willem Dafoe (Eddie), Vanessa Redgrave (Bertha Spafford), Stella Schnabel (Lisa), Makram Khoury (Khatib), Doraid Liddawi (Sameer), Shredi Jabarin (Ali).

Julien Schnabel is one of the most visually gifted of all directors currently working today. It most likely comes from his artistic background, but with his first three films – Basquait, Before Night Falls and The Diving Bell and the Butterfly – Schnabel found interesting, innovative visual ways to tell his stories. The same could be said for his most recent film, Miral, except that this time, Schnabel’s visuals distract from his story, not enhance it. Here is a complex story, spanning the history of Palestine from 1948 to 1993, has a shifting narrative that at different times tells different stories of women living there during that time, and yet Schnabel seems insistent on using the same type of subjective filmmaking technique that made The Diving Bell and the Butterfly so wonderful. The difference is that that film was one man’s story – the story of a man who is essentially trapped inside his own body, trying desperately to reconnect with the world, whereas this film has a much larger scope that doesn’t lend itself to this kind of filmmaking. The result is an oddly disjointed film – one that tries to show multiple perspectives on its events, but is so wrapped up in its visual design that it doesn’t do justice to any of them.

The story opens in 1948 right after Israel has been founded. When the film opens, its central character is Hind al-Husseini (Hiam Abbass), a Palestinian woman of some standing and resources. She sees many of her countrymen displaced, and is seeing more and more orphans without a place to go. She opens her own boarding school for girls who have nowhere else to go – hoping that by educating the younger generation of women, that they will be able to change their, and by extension, their countries lot.

The narrative shifts focus a few times – focusing on a radical woman sent to jail for trying to bomb a movie theater (Ruba Blal), and the woman she meets in prison (Tasmine Al Massri), who will get out and marry Blal’s brother, Jamal (Alexander Siddig), eventually giving birth to Miral, before walking out on them both. The movie then picks up when Miral (now played by Frieda Pinto) is now 17, in the 1980s, and is living at Hind’s school during the week, and spending the weekend with her father. Her father wants her to live a normal life – not to become embroiled in the political upheaval, and violence that surrounds them – something Hind wants as well. But Miral has a mind of her own, and falls for a Palestinian militant, Hani (Omar Metweally) and slowly becomes more involved in the movement.

This could have, and should have, been a fascinating movie. For some reason, Palestine has not been presented in too many movies over the years, and when they are it is rarely from a sympathetic viewpoint. Schnabel, who is Jewish, and whose mother was apparently the head of the Woman’s Zionist Movement in America in 1948, would seem like an odd choice to direct – but he said he wanted to show the other side of the argument, which is a valid reason for doing the film. The film is certainly more sympathetic to the Palestinians than it is to the Israelis – only one of which (played by Schanbel’s own daughter Lisa) is presented in any real depth, and in any way sympathetically. While I do not necessarily agree with the politics of the movie, I was interested, just like Schnabel, in the other side of the debate. And this story, with its large, long scope, should have been a real opportunity to explore it.

Unfortunately though, Miral is a failure for reasons that have nothing to do with its politics. The film is jumbled and disjointed, and ends up not really providing any real point of view – and completely fails to give the incidents it portrays any context. Yes, the film looks great – Eric Gautier’s cinematography is a triumph, as is the editing making this one of the most distinctive visual films of the year – but the problem is we never really get to know any of the characters – or really what is happening to their country. Schnabel is so interested in his visually pyrotechnics, that he forgets that his story is more important than showing off his skills behind the camera. The result is a movie that fails to generate any real sympathy for its characters, because they remain cardboard cutouts, not real people. Pinto perhaps could have made Miral into a more three dimensional character, but she is never given a chance to. I know Abbas, Metwally and Siddig have the skills required, but again Schanbel lets them down.

Watching the film, I did feel like I was in the hands of a genuine artist of a director. But in this case, he couldn’t see the forest because of the trees. Miral is a clunky mess of a movie – one that isn’t likely to have any real impact on anyone, because Schnabel is too worried about his visuals to make a good story. It’s odd that the film has generated such fevered debate about how it portrays Israel and Palestine, because to me, it doesn’t really portray either in a way that resembles reality – the film doesn’t seem to have much of a point of view on anything, other than its clunky attempts to inject political diatribes into its narrative that fail completely. It’s a shame, because this should have been one of the year’s best films.

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