The Middling East; ‘Miral’

[15 July 2011]

By Bill Gibron

PopMatters Contributing Editor

Perhaps a series of sketchbooks on the subject would have been better. For artist turned filmmaker Julian Schnabel, the visual element is never in doubt. His movies are always optically interesting. However, in deciding to tackle the whole of Jewish/Palestinian history since the founding of Israel in 1948, and adding to that the story of Hind Husseini and her school/orphanage for refugee children, the director dives into a vast - repeat, VAST - uncharted territory. Miral is a story that’s epic in scope, that covers several major events including the birth of a nation, the Six Day War, the First Infitada, and the promise of the Peace Talks. Schnabel, in bringing Rula Jebreal’s adaptation of her own novel to the screen, fails to find any of the grandeur - politically, socially, emotionally. Instead, the movie’s ambling approach leeches all significance out of the situations, resulting in what can best be described as a naive primer on the ongoing problems in the Middle East.

For Hind Husseini (an excellent Hiam Abbass), the discovery of a group of children after the Deir Yassin Massacre inspires her to start the Dar al-Tifl School. Converting her grandfather’s mansion and securing aide from both an important sheik as well as a former friend/current UN worker (Willem Dafoe), she begins to make a difference in the region. In the meantime, an abused young girl named Nadia (Yasmine Al Massri) runs away from home and is eventually jailed for punching an Israeli woman in the face. There, she meets a nurse named Fatima (Ruba Blal) and together they discuss the politicization of the Palestinian cause. Eventually, Nadia is freed, marries, and gives birth to a daughter, Miral. As the child grows (a barely passable Freida Pinto) and attends Husseini’s institute, she too discovers the underground movement against the Jewish state. Falling for a young man named Hani (Omar Metwally), she decides to take a stand for herself and her people.

Miral is a mess. It’s a movie that’s told in such an arch and yet casual manner that it loses all meaning - or hope of ever achieving same. Like the age old truism about dealing with what you know while continually narrowing of focus, director Julian Schnabel takes on too much with too little - too little detail, too little depth, too little outrage, and perhaps more importantly, too little political perspective. While no one is asking Schnabel to create a polemic screed, some sense of where he or this story should stand for would be nice. Sure, he seems to side with the Palestinians, giving them the more sympathetic moments in the movie, but there’s never any clarity. Instead, Israel is portrayed as marauder, invader, murderer, jailer, justice, and inevitable partner in any possible plan for peace. From the other side, we get terrorism as a rationale response and the shedding of unnecessary blood. That’s about it.

Schnabel - or perhaps it is Jebreal’s superficial script - decides that the best way to handle the material is to center each section around a specific character. Massive black and white title cards announce names (“HIND,” “NADIA”) and then we get to the meandering. Some of these sections are pointless - the entire sequence with Miral’s mother and her jailbird pal in particular -and fail to offer an allusion toward a bigger, more profound point. If we are supposed to see something more noteworthy in Miral or Hind’s story, it’s just not there. Instead, they play like fragmented attempts at tricking the viewer, inspiring a sense of meaning where none will eventually be discovered. Even more frustrating is the fact that all of the tales - the founding of the school, the Palestinian cause - are inherently interesting. Any one of them could stand alone as their own film. It takes a real effort to sap them of their import, and yet Schnabel manages to do just that.

His actors don’t help much. Some - Dafoe, a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it Vanessa Redgrave - are there as leverage, a way to inspire some interest in an otherwise yawning mainstream audience. But the rest can best be described as good (Abbass) to god-awful (Pinto). Since he doesn’t care about establishing character, Schnabel lets other elements add dimension, mostly to no avail. After a stellar start, Abbass is stuck in such silly old age make-up that she looks like a Disney villain. Similarly, Al Massri and Blal seem defined by their wild mats of uncontrolled hair, while Miral herself is supposed to be explained by her ethnic beauty - that’s it. No real passion. No complicated position. It’s Pro-Palestine and lots of well lit Vogue cover close-ups. As a matter of fact, Schnabel treats everything the same. During a last act trip back home, Miral looks out a car window at the passing landscape of Israel, and suddenly we are stuck in a travelogue. It looks nice. It means nothing.

But again it’s the subject that sinks Schnabel’s ambitions. If the entire problem between Palestinians and Jews was merely a case of land over legitimate claims, the problem would have probably been legally parsed out years ago. Instead, there are so many nuances to this situation that a movie like Miral can’t conceivably address them properly - so it doesn’t even try. Perhaps it was anticipating a little viewer preparedness, a working knowledge of the region and its historic disputes. Whatever the case, Schnabel and the cast can’t make it work, and as a result, Miral gets mired in a bog of broken promises. It promises to be an insightful look at Hind Husseini and her school. It promises to show how the First Infitada set the tone for contemporary Middle East issues. It promise to underscore one young woman’s coming of age - politically, socially, emotionally. Instead, it’s a vague, overly ambitious wash that will leave both fanatics and the casual fan wanting more…and caring even less.

Maybe a series of sketchbooks would have been a better idea…

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