While any film addressing the Israeli-Palestinian divide can expect a measure of controversy, few hearts or minds are likely to be stirred by Julian Schnabel’s inoffensive, well-intentioned “Miral.” Schnabel’s signature blend of splintered storytelling and sobering humanism feels misapplied to this sweeping multigenerational saga of four Arab women living under Israeli occupation, the youngest of which, Miral, emerges a bland totem of hope rather than a compelling movie subject. A year-end Stateside release date will raise expectations unlikely to be borne out by either passionate critical response or sustained arthouse biz.
Set to open this month in Europe, “Miral” will go out in the U.S. Dec. 3 through the Weinstein Co., making it the rare film to favor a Palestinian p.o.v. and also be presented under the auspices of Harvey Weinstein, a vocal supporter of Israel. But while the film doesn’t shy away from portraying everyday Israeli abuses of authority, its approach to the conflict is calculated to offend as little as possible; the predictable, can’t-we-all-just-get-along coda would be easier to swallow were it preceded by a more politically engaged or personally engaging narrative.
Adapted by journalist Rula Jebreal from her own semi-autobiographical novel, the picture is roughly divided into four chapters of varying length. Providing a sturdy anchor is the story of Hind Husseini (Hiam Abbass), a compassionate, iron-willed woman living in Jerusalem shortly after the creation of Israel in 1948. Hind turns her home into the Tifl Al-Arabi Institute, a school and orphanage for Palestinian girls, and a stronghold of peace and education in the tumultuous decades that follow.
The film then leaps ahead to the 1960s, shifting its attention to two other women, neither of whom registers as more than a victim in Jebreal’s scenario. Nadia (Yasmine Al Massri), a young runaway racked by alcoholism and sexual abuse, is arrested for punching a Jewish woman on a bus. In prison, she meets Fatima (Ruba Blal), a former nurse handed three life sentences for attempting to detonate a bomb in a movie theater (recounted in a tense sequence that makes interesting use of clips from Roman Polanski’s “Repulsion”).
Upon her release, Nadia marries a devout, conspicuously peace-loving Muslim, Jamal (Alexander Siddig), and gives birth to Miral (Yolanda El-Karam), whose story dominates the film’s second half. For reasons not very clearly laid out, Miral is sent to Hind’s orphanage, where she grows up to be a lovely but stubborn, impulsive young woman (Freida Pinto), torn between the will of Jamal and Hind (embodied with characteristic warmth by Siddig and Abbass), who urge her to focus on her studies, and her own radicalist impulses.
Miral’s growing fondness for dangerously handsome PLO activist Hani (Omar Metwally) leads her to a critical choice between pursuing education and the hope of a better life, or going further down the path of violent rebellion. The fact that Miral is named after a kind of red flower (“You’ve probably seen millions of them,” we’re helpfully informed) is meant to underline the story’s broad applicability, but so little feels authentically at stake here, one wishes the filmmakers had sacrificed the universal in favor of something more distinctive.
Schnabel employs his usual jagged, impressionistic style, characterized by handheld camerawork (courtesy of ace lenser Eric Gautier), a variety of lenses and color filters, and a fleet editing style heavy on jump cuts. While this fragmentary approach reinforces the film’s subjectivity and suggests a multitude of other possible angles on the topic, it also feels dramatically unfocused, particularly before Miral takes centerstage. Where each of the artist-helmer’s previous three features (“Basquiat,” “Before Night Falls” and “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly”) was focused on one man’s psyche, “Miral” is structured primarily around an issue, and none of its four protags emerges with much of an inner life; at a certain point, the characters begin speaking almost exclusively in soundbites (“These settlers living here are our real cancer,” “There is no future for them without one for us”).
Furthering the didactic feel, the film uses archival footage and onscreen text to recap such pivotal events as the 1967 Six Day War and the signing of the Oslo Accords in 1993; the result may be helpful as a primer for mainstream auds but will prove unenlightening for those well versed in Mideast history. Pic feels further compromised by its awkward commercial concessions, such as the use of English as the primary language (despite snippets of Hebrew and Arabic) and the presence of name actors such as Vanessa Redgrave and Willem Dafoe in little more than cameo appearances. Songs by regular Schnabel collaborator Tom Waits, among others, feel especially jarring in this context.
Bound to raise perhaps the most criticism is the casting of Pinto, the Indian actress-model who came to fame in “Slumdog Millionaire,” in the role of an Arab Everygirl — an odd choice for a drama predicated on specifics of cultural identity. While Pinto looks appropriately willful, driven and occasionally fierce as Miral clashes with her loving guardians (and is later whipped in prison for her suspected terrorist involvement), neither she nor the material convincingly demonstrates why, of the countless stories that have been told about the conflict, this one was worth singling out.