Hollywood likes its films to be cool and cuddly. Controversy is not high on a studio wish list.
And now along comes Julian Schnabel, the pear-shaped painter-turned-filmmaker, whose new movie, “Miral,” seems pre-ordained to generate maximum anger. Having spent time with Schnabel last week, I came away unclear as to whether the auteur doesn’t know or doesn’t care.
Schnabel’s initial motivation, I believe, was to shoot an emotional coming-of-age story — one set in history’s great tinderbox: Israel and Palestine. The narrative tracks Miral as she grows up in a school for orphaned Palestinian children, then goes on to teach in a refugee camp where she falls in love with a political activist.
Schnabel insists his message is simply about the need to come together. Indeed, one reason he shot the film was that he became romantically involved with Rula Jebreal, a beautiful journalist who wrote about her experience as a Palestinian teenager in the years of intifada in Jerusalem. Schnabel loved both her and her story.
Arguably, he would have been on safer ground had he shot a movie about the love affair between a Jewish painter and a Palestinian hottie. The film he chose to create, however, depicts characters who become enshrouded in politics. The empathetic characters are Palestinian. The principal Israeli characters are soldiers — thuggish soldiers. In one scene they tie up Miral and beat her with a cane.
The American Jewish Committee declared that Schnabel “portrays Israel in a highly negative light.” Schnabel counters that “the Torah teaches us that it is not the Jewish way to treat people as the Palestinians have been treated.”
Curmudgeonly by nature, the 59-year-old director tends to dress in torn sports shirts and pajama bottoms. Brooklyn-born, he spent his formative years in Texas and once had a rock band. His paintings are on display at some of the world’s great museums. His “Before Night Falls” and “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly” were favorites on the festival circuit.
Given his eclectic background, it’s no surprise that Schnabel’s films are aggressively idiosyncratic. While his visuals can be absorbing, his storytelling can become bumpy. At one point in “Miral” the screen is dominated by a black line, apparently to indicate passage of time.
The cast represents a mix of nationalities — Freida Pinto, the Indian actress from “Slumdog Millionaire,” is captivating as Miral. Production credits characterize “Miral” as a French-Israeli-Italian-Indian co-production — maybe a record for cinematic cooperation — and the Weinstein Co. is handling U.S. distribution. Harvey Weinstein confided in a TV interview recently that his mother had stopped talking to him because the movie angered her. He may have been kidding, but it nonetheless reflected the tensions surrounding the release.
To be sure, the noise may generate interest in the film, or it may alienate potential filmgoers. One pro-Palestinian critic dismissed “Miral” as a “bourgeois melodrama” while Schnabel quotes an Israeli defense official as rejecting technical cooperation because it would be akin to “helping Hitler make a movie out of Mein Kampf.”
A lot of this is posturing, of course, but it raises some disturbing questions: Is the Middle East toxic as a setting for any film — even a coming-of-age story? Can audiences relate to characters in this setting without politicizing them?
Schnabel’s toughness is admirable, and so are his artistic sensibilities. It’s open to question, however, whether his touching film can flourish in this tinderbox.