Muddled filmmaking mires ‘Miral’

Freida Pinto in ‘Miral.’

By Ellen Futterman, Editor

Julian Schnabel’s new film “Miral,” about the Arab-Israeli conflict, is sure to fan the ire of many Jews because of its overarching, pro-Palestinian viewpoint. The Israelis depicted here are tantamount to Gestapo-like automatons and that, quite frankly, is a tame description.

As a filmmaker, Schnabel is entitled to his agenda, regardless of whether it includes selective storytelling, historic cherry picking or a one-sided context. But what seems most disingenuous is the film’s footnote dedication to “everyone on both sides who still thinks peace is possible.” Are there really two sides to his story? After spending two hours with “Miral,” how would anyone know?

Much has been written in the Jewish press and elsewhere about Schnabel, an American Jew, and his Palestinian girlfriend Rula Jebreal, who adapted the screenplay for “Miral” from her semi-autobiographical book of the same name. As hard as Schnabel tries to mine the material for emotional resonance, Jebreal’s muddled screenplay, stilted dialogue and lack of a compelling central character undercut the effort.

“Miral” tells a multi-generational story through the eyes of four Palestinian women, beginning in 1947 when the State of Israel was created and ending with the signing of the 1993 Oslo Accords. The wealthy Hind Husseini (the wonderful Hiam Abbass from “The Visitor”) establishes a school for Palestinian orphans soon after the 1948 Arab-Israel War. Over the years, the school grows to house thousands of children, including Miral (Freida Pinto of “Slumdog Millionaire”), whose coming-of-age coincides with the 1987 intifada. Jumbled between these two characters are under-developed stories of two others – Miral’s mother, Nadia, a sexually abused runaway, and Fatima, an imprisoned nurse.


Artist-turned-director Schnabel’s previous films (“Basquiat,” “Before Night Falls” and especially “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly”) showcased his flair for lush visuals and evocative imagery. “Miral” offers plenty of both – some of the flourishes are truly exquisite –though his penchant for dizzying camera angles and deliberately blurred frames prove more annoying than effective here.

Then there is the matter of Miral herself. Hard as Pinto tries to imbue the character with depth, her radicalization seems more a function of teenage rebellion than heartfelt ideology. It also doesn’t help that Miral just isn’t as interesting as the other women in the story, each of whom get the short shrift by comparison. I would have especially liked to know more about Hind, whose commitment to education is unfailing even in the face of having to compromise her political beliefs.

Extraneous characters also serve to confuse. One is (longtime Palestinian supporter) Vanessa Redgrave, who throws a party in the opening scene, then is never seen again. Willem Dafoe gets only slightly more screen time as an American who pops in and out of Hind’s life, delivering wooden lines.

“Miral” is a study in melding culture and conflict from the perspective of an artist whose canvas is as hazy as a Seurat painting observed from close up. Too bad Schnabel didn’t take a few steps back.


Rated: PG-13

Running time: 1:56

Opens Friday at Plaza Frontenac