Miral (The Weinstein Company, PG-13)

Each story could be expanded to carry a movie by itself, and cramming them into just a few short scenes creates information overload without emotional identification.

 

 

Having made his name as a film director with Basquiat (1996), Before Night Falls (2000), and The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (2007), each of which focused on the world of a compelling individual, Julian Schnabel ventures into unknown territory with Miral. His new film aspires to be an epic of the Palestinian struggle organized around the story of four women.

Miral is based on a novel by Rula Jebreal, and someone could probably adapt this material into a successful epic film. Judging by the finished product, however, that person is not Julian Schnabel. He’s much too subtle a filmmaker to crank out the equivalent of Exodus or Gandhi and his mannered style produces more confusion and impatience than impact when trying to convey a story that spans four decades and has not one central focus but four. In addition, it’s always good when making an epic to have your story lead up to a really definitive result, like India winning independence from Great Britain. It doesn’t have to be an unequivocal victory (partition and violence accompanied Indian independence and Attenborough’s film ends with Gandhi’s assassination) but ongoing troubles just don’t produce the kind of punch needed to make it all seem worthwhile.

Although Miral is billed as telling the stories of four women, it really centers around two. Hind Husseini (Hiam Abbass) is a native of Jerusalem who in the late 1940s founds a school and children’s home, the Dar Al-Tifel Institute, for war orphans. She is old enough to remember a time before occupation and is partly sheltered from its effects by her familial wealth. In addition, while she is unquestionably doing important work by providing a safe home and education for thousands of children, her devotion to this cause blinds her somewhat to the growing radicalization of young Palestinians who do not share her advantages.

Miral (Yolanda El Karam as a child, Freida Pinto as a young adult) is brought to the Dar Al-Tifel Institute by her father (Alexander Siddig) after the suicide of her mother Nadia (Yasmine Elmasri). At age 17 Miral is sent with other students to teach in a refugee camp and as a result of what she sees there becomes less willing to stick to her books while ignoring the oppressive reality outside the school’s gates. She becomes involved in radical activities and falls in love with a fellow rebel (Omar Metwally), both of which factors bring her in conflict not only with Hussein but also with her conservative father. Jailed at one point, she is put in a cell with Fatima (Ruba Blal), the fourth of the four focal characters, who is serving three life sentences: two for an attempted bombing, one for failing to stand in court to hear her sentence.

There’s enough material here for a mini-series and the stories of Nadia and Fatima get short shrift; each could be expanded to carry a movie by itself and cramming them into just a few short scenes creates information overload without emotional identification. That’s the main problem in Miral: you don’t know enough about any character to really be interested in what happens to them, let alone what they think and feel, and without that kind of empathy the film just becomes a blur of victimization. There’s nothing more dismissive than treating someone, even sympathetically, as just another victim. I don’t think that was Schnabel’s intention but there’s nothing in this film to convince me that he really got under the skin of any of his characters and managed to see them as whole, unique human beings worthy of his attention and consideration. If he didn’t bother, why should the audience?

For all that, Miral has many effective scenes and can be quite moving—the relationship between Miral and her father is a case in point—but it never really adds up to anything.

If you’re a fan of arty cinematic tricks there’s plenty of them in this film, some more successful than others. For instance it works well to present the early scenes (featuring cameos by Vanessa Redgrave and Willem Dafoe) with a sepia tint as if they were faded home movies. On the other hand, what is the point of the supersaturated colors in the movie theatre scene? Maybe they’re meant to be a reflection of Fatima’s hyper-aware state, but that’s just a guess on my part. Shaky-cam and out-of-focus shots are both used to excess—it’s one thing to present information in fragments, the way a character might perceive unfamiliar surroundings, but it’s another to use those techniques for most of a film. And a director does need to pick a lane; if you’re going to ask the audience to piece together the meaning of a scene for themselves, don’t cue the conclusion with a soundtrack full of familiar emotional cues. | Sarah Boslaugh

 

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