Early on into Julian Schnabel‘s Miral, Vanessa Redgrave toasts her Palestinian and Israeli guests at the American Colony Hotel’s Christmas party. She raises her glass and asks that there be no talk of politics, only merriment. This feels like a wink to the audience. Anyone sitting down to watch a film about fifty years of Palestinians living in Israel cannot kid themselves in expecting a deal without politics.
What Schnabel, innovative director of Basquiat and The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, offers is not really politics or art. It’s a strange hybrid of news footage and the skeletons of different stories strung together from 1947 to the early 90s. I say skeletons because the first three episodes only give broad strokes; we have to wait for infant Miral to grow into Freida Pinto before we get the beginnings (and maybe just the beginnings) of a fully fleshed narrative.
Take Hind Husseini‘s story. Played by Hiam Abbass, she is a rich Palestinian who schools child refugees fleeing from forces establishing Israel. Her tale is a compellingly factual one, but Schnabel does not explain her motivations or much of her past. I believe in a good heart as much as the next person, but altruism should be given a justification.
The following two segments follow erotic dancer Nadia and terrorist Fatima. Schnabel is still brilliant at fashioning subjective scenes, including mesmerizing closeups of Nadia belly dancing at a bar and cutting between Fatima carrying a bomb into a cinema and Catherine Deneuve being raped onscreen in Repulsion.
Whatever happens visually – the canted angles, spot focus, gentle over-exposure – is undercut by a terribly unimaginative script. Rula Jebreal is an excellent journalist but did a poor job adapting her childhood to film (Pinto plays her younger self). It’s as if the character’s speak their subtext instead of actual dialogue. Furthermore, most of the Palestinians speak accented English, drawing away from the authenticity Schnabel is good at crafting into every shot.
Nadia eventually marries a devout Muslim (Alexandre Siddig) and gives birth to Miral. The girl is schooled by Hind and becomes torn between revolution (an option symbolized by a boyfriend who works for Fatah) and picking up Hind’s torch. Along the way she braves riots, torture, at the hands of the authorities – chilling scenes but not anything we have not seen before.
Also disappointing about Miral is its lack of objectivity. Schnabel and Jebreal dedicated the film to those “who push for peace, on both sides” but demonize every Israeli soldier and officer. The film amounts to an angry series of Palestinian rants – some more justified than others – peppered with camera wizardry. And Vanessa said keep out the politics.