Miral Dir. Julian Schnabel

[The Weinstein Company; 2011]

Styles: Coming-of-age
Others: Osama

Miral may draw some attention as a film by a Jewish American, Julian Schnabel, which depicts, from the point of view of Palestinian characters, events surrounding the First Intifada: a failed Palestinian uprising in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, which lasted from the late 80s until the early 90s and claimed over 2000 lives. Because the film and its source material — a book of the same name by Rula Jebreal, who has adapted it for the screen — touch upon very thorny and divisive issues, and also because the question of which side in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is the “right” one is not easily answered, Jebreal and Schnabel neither directly address the former nor adopt any firm position on the latter. This fact is typified by both their (possibly intentionally) clumsy handling of political intercourse among their characters and the decision to render Miral more a humanist tragedy than a political biography.

Following the suicide of her mentally ill and alcoholic mother, 7-year-old Miral (Yolanda El-Karam as a child, Freida Pinto as an adult) is sent to live in Hind Husseini (Hiam Abbass)’s orphanage, a haven for displaced Palestinian children, founded by Hind after the Deir Yassin massacre of 1948. When, at the age of 17 and in the employ of the orphanage, Miral falls under the sway of revolutionary Hani (Omar Metwally), she begins to flirt with paramilitarism and is picked up by the Israeli authorities for distributing incendiary leaflets. My first criticism falls on the filmmakers’ decision to excuse Miral’s choices by conflating her Palestinian nationalistic sentiments with “romantic” feelings for Hani, constructing her as a passive participant, an “impressionable young girl” hypnotized by trendy revolutionary poetics. Perhaps most disappointing is one of the film’s final scenes, in which Miral, having recently returned from a salubrious stay with her Aunt in Haifa following brutal treatment at the hands of Israeli interrogators, is met in the night by an inexplicably “reformed” Hani, who espouses the importance of diplomacy and cooperation with the Israelis and kisses her, at which point she immediately capitulates, despite having endured torture, and… well, that’s the end of the film.

The filmmakers’ maladroit handling of the psychology of dissidence even frustrates their attempts at garnering sympathy for intendedly sympathetic characters. To cite at length one salient example: the character Fatima’s response to being fired from her nursing job for helping a POW escape her hospital is to blow up a movie theater during a showing of Repulsion. It’s a scene that also results in one of the film’s silliest moments: a suspenseful montage, leading up to the detonation of the bomb, of the entranced filmgoers’ faces as they watch a suspenseful scene in the film. Surely one of the film’s most cognitively dissonant situations, it fails to explain the psychological effect of living in a refugee culture, forcing the viewer to just assume that Fatima was driven to this grisly act, perhaps for a better reason than merely being fired. In another scene, Hind lectures Miral for dragging a coworker to a peace rally that turned violent, culminating in the death of the latter, in response to which Miral actually defends herself and becomes indignant. This is also one of many scenes to feature some slightly uncomfortable overacting from Pinto. But how can she be blamed? The scenario is utterly unbelievable.

Unsurprisingly, Schnabel has taken special pains to produce a visually jarring, headachy film enlisting any number of shallow depth of field shots, color filters, and shaky closeups. Sure, the choice to structure Miral as a two-part “parallel biography” — of Hind for the first hour, Miral for the second — is commendable, but the first peters out without any real conclusion; the second is desperately rushed to its conclusion; and the two stories, each radically different in tone from the other, often feel tacked together.

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