With its preceding cloud of debate and dispute, Miral’s arrival in theaters feels anticlimactic. The controversial new project from artist/filmmaker/provocateur Julian Schnabel ( The Diving Bell and the Butterfly) may have more impact in Mideast policy-opinion forums than in cinemas.The movie adapts Rula Jebreal’s autobiographical novel about a motherless Palestinian girl’s coming of age in Israel in the 1970s and ’80s. Slumdog Millionaire’s Freida Pinto plays the teenage Muslim at the center of the story. Rash, idealistic, passionately patriotic, she chafes under the tutelage of her pacifist father and the moderate teacher who founded the girls’ boarding school she attends. Because she has dark skin and an intense gaze, she is regularly subjected to humiliating searches by Israeli authorities. When a handsome PLO member takes her under his wing, her recruitment into violent rebellion is all but guaranteed. Yet her education, and the community that supports her, empower her to find a more constructive outlet for her convictions. Miral’s agenda doesn’t play to Schnabel’s strengths. His best work on film is bold-stroke portraiture, evoking complicated personalities and emotions with dynamic, dreamlike imagery. There are moments here when that ability shines through. Schnabel uses powerful visual metaphors to portray Palestine’s history as a series of rape-like violations. The shuddering rails of an antique iron bed framed in stark close-up, a violent snippet from Roman Polanski’s Repulsive onscreen in a theater about to be bombed and the destructive down stroke of a backhoe demolishing an Arab dwelling all sear the imagination. A damaged character’s suicidal walk into the sea is rendered so vividly that a viewer feels the rise of gooseflesh and practically tastes the saltwater. When the story gives Schnabel the opportunity to enter his characters’ interior lives, Miral is at its most powerful. Those moments are frustratingly few. Jebreal, Schnabel’s romantic partner and the film’s writer, is a political commentator on Italian TV. Her characters speak in the dry, didactic language of position papers. Schnabel’s earlier films focused on artists who responded to life’s cruelty and joy with outsized emotions and volcanic creativity. His characters here feel like ideological mouthpieces. The film is not an anti-Israeli screed, as some commentators have charged. There are scenes of anti-Jewish prejudice among Muslims, and the Palestinians kill one of their own for the heresy of advocating peace. Schnabel’s pro-peace motivations are clearly expressed through his casting choice for a young Jewish woman in love with one of Miral’s cousins. The director’s daughter, Stella Schnabel, does a fine job in the role; Pinto, for all her smiles and scowls, remains a blank. Too often, though, Miral steps back from the viewpoint of lively, contradictory individuals. The film opens with a lengthy preamble about the history of the region and Miral’s family. The title character doesn’t show up until the film is almost half over. What could have been a vivid personal story withers into a dry history lesson. Schnabel has shown himself to be capable of much better work, and that is what he owes his audience.
Movie InfoCast: Hiam Abbass, Freida Pinto, Alexander Siddig, Omar Metwally, Willem Dafoe, Vanessa Redgrave.
Director: Julian Schnabel.
Screenwriter: Rula Jebreal. Based on her novel.
Producer: Jon Kilik.
A Weinstein Co. release. Running time: 112 minutes. Vulgar language, brief violence, sexual assault, adult themes.Running time: 112 minutes. In Miami-Dade: South Beach; in Broward: Sunrise; in Palm Beach: Shadowood.