Focus of ‘Miral’ gets lost in its cause
‘Miral’’ feels like gastric bypass moviemaking. It’s a miniseries awkwardly stuffed in the body of a two-hour drama about the Palestinians’ long struggle against the Israelis. At, say, 600 minutes, the movie might be just as overdone and underthought as its shorter, squatter counterpart, which Julian Schnabel has directed, but it would have had a mightier peak to scale on the way down to its mawkish, shrugging conclusion.
For an hour or so, Schnabel is in the same high form that made “Before Night Falls’’ and “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly’’ such sensorial pleasures. The film hunkers down in Israel at a girls’ school for Palestinian orphans, but its camerawork, by Éric Gautier, is restless. It spins, floats, hovers, dances, and prowls. One shot produces a metal rod moving up and down against a white background. Only in the subsequent cut do we understand the nature of the abstraction. There are enough canted angles for an entire season of “Batman.’’ The objects are oversaturated and distressed, the contents of the framing blurred or smeared. Who can say whether Schnabel means all this warping as commentary? But for as long as it lasted, I was curious to know where he would go.
A lot of time is devoted to the establishment and maintenance of the prep school, founded by Hind al-Husseini (Hiam Abbass). She finds a pile of discarded Palestinian urchins on the street at the conclusion of the Arab-Israeli War in 1948 and knows just what to do with them. Over the decades, the student body swells to 2,000. Hind wants to better the girls’ futures by educating them. By 1987, she has her hands full with Miral (Freida Pinto), who, despite her proper upbringing, comes to see freedom-fighting as a legitimate means to end the Israeli occupation.
The movie is actually best as it builds toward Miral’s arrival. Schnabel gives us the history of the school, the stories of Miral’s unhappy, outspoken, briefly imprisoned mother (Yasmine Al Massri) and her forbidding cellmate, Fatima, a would-be terrorist, played by Ruba Blal, whose downbeat facial expressions predict decades of oppressive brutalist architecture. Schnabel has fun flashing the women’s names up on the screen, turning them into heroes and giving their comical dialogue a little B-movie zing (“Like I told you,’’ Fatima says, explaining her imprisonment, “I’m a nurse’’). In a flashback, Fatima walks into an art house to deposit a pipe bomb. The theater is showing Roman Polanski’s “Repulsion,’’ but she looks like Pam Grier on an undercover assignment. This is to say that the movie’s opening half gives a strong sense of how the Quentin Tarantino treatment of the conflict might proceed.
But “Miral’’ is based on events in Rula Jebreal’s autobiographical novel (Jebreal, who is also dating Schnabel, wrote the script, too), and I think it dawns on the director that he might want to dial himself down and take a tenable position, one that better flatters the lady in his life. So the movie embroils Miral in a love story with an intifadah leader, Hani (Omar Metwally), that neither Hind, her goodly father (Alexander Siddig), nor we can really abide. But he’s on hand to explain how the Israeli West Bank settlers are the Palestinians’ cancer and must be destroyed. The camera glances over at the stacks of houses, then back at Pinto, who’s radiating, in that shot, the sort of anticipation you feel cashing out at a clearance sale.
Pinto, who played the abused beauty in “Slumdog Millionaire,’’ has what passes for conviction. She also has an Indian accent that often muddles the geopolitics. Schnabel encourages the characters to switch between Arabic and English. I couldn’t determine the logic of that except to lessen the distraction of Pinto’s otherwise lovely speaking voice.
I wasn’t crazy about Olivier Assayas’s terrorism epic “Carlos.’’ It was, like “Miral,’’ a designer entertainment, but one whose style was a kind of politics. In that way, it was smart: It owned its shallowness. Schnabel doesn’t fare as well since he ultimately wants to make a less ironic political point. His sympathies reside with the Palestinians, but the straighter and more serious his moviemaking, the duller and more naive the movie and its heroine become. When Hani says the proposed Oslo Accords with Israel will give Palestinians 22 percent of the country, Miral disagrees. Why can’t the whole country be a democracy for everyone, “like in New York City?’’
The movie loses the petulance and sense of play (the notorious PLO supporter Vanessa Redgrave has a tiny part) that poises it for camp. And yet what Schnabel opts for is too light for the force of a real cause. “Miral’’ subsists on a diet of murderously territorial Israelis, poor persecuted Palestinians, and boilerplate pleas for peace: It’s cause-y.
Wesley Morris can be reached at email@example.com.