Miral: A Review

Miral – Dir: Julian Schnabel; *ing: Freida Pinto, Hiam Abbass, Alexander Siddig, Yasmine Elmasri, Omar Metwally, Ruba Blal

Filmmaker Schnabel is no stranger to daunting material based on or around real life events and people: he has tackled the tumultuous life of Cuban writer Reinaldo Arenas in Before Night Falls, and in The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, the tragedy and triumph of Frenchman Jean-Dominique Bauby, who was left completely paralysed after a devastating stroke with only the ability to blink his left eye. Both films were tremendously well-received internationally. With his latest project though, he has a bit of a problem on his hands, for Miral is not about the struggle of an individual against personal adversity, but of an entire people, against the usurpation of their land, their rights, and their identity, in what is surely one of the most highly charged flashpoints of the twentieth century: the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Not surprisingly then, the film has come under scathing attack from the expected quarters, and overwhelming support from others. Leaving aside the polarizing political angle though (if that is even possible), what comes into question is Miral’s merit as a piece of cinema. But more on that in a bit.

The film is based on the autobiographical novel by Palestinian-born journalist Rula Jebreal and tells the story of Miral (Pinto) a young Palestinian girl who gets involved in the events of the First Intifada against the Israeli occupation. Well, that’s part of the story at least; it’s also concerned with the narrative of Hind al-Hosseini (Abbass), the legendary Palestinian heiress who rescued orphaned survivors of the Deir Yassin massacre and also opened a school, the Dar al-Tifl al-Arabi, in her mansion for those and other children. Also coming into play is the thread of Miral’s mother Nadia (Elmasri), a disturbed runaway and convict who drowns herself when Miral is a little girl. Yet another story briefly takes us on a detour when Nadia’s prison mate Fatima (Blal) recounts the events that led to her incarceration. At another point the film shows us the encounter Miral has with her cousin’s Israeli girlfriend, while her obvious infatuation with freedom fighter Hani (Metwally) becomes the catalyst for her politicization. All this should give some indication of what the problem with Miral is: there are so many aspects at play that they render the film somewhat flat and devoid of emotion, despite the much too generous use of background music (including, strangely enough, A.R. Rahman’s iconic theme for Mani Ratnam’s Bombay). Though photographed beautifully, the film’s fragmented narrative (with clumsily placed info-titles) tends to keep the audience at a distance, not giving us a chance to find that ‘hook’ where we can become invested in the characters and events onscreen. It doesn’t help that Pinto, though lovely to look at (and bearing an uncanny resemblance to Jebreal), is unable to bring the required fire and gravitas as Miral; she isn’t bad in the part, just lightweight. Better, more inspired performances come from veteran Arab actress Abbass, Metwally, and specially Siddig as Miral’s doting father troubled by her tryst with the freedom movement. There are also a few star cameos, including one by longtime Arab rights activist Vanessa Redgrave.

Although overall Miral lacks the power of Schnabel’s earlier works and isn’t terribly engrossing at the end of it, it certainly deserves a look, if only because it commits to the screen a perspective not oft told.

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