On paper, Miral has a lot going for it. A pedigreed director (Julian Schnabel, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly), topical subject matter, and an up-and-coming young actress (Slumdog Millionaire’s Freida Pinto). Yet despite these promising ingredients, the movie itself fizzles with humdrum storytelling and little emotional impact. In the wake of its stint at several film festivals, the movie has been met with controversy after accusations of promoting an anti-Israeli message. While this reviewer didn’t find the film particularly offensive, Miral commits a far deadlier cinematic crime — monotony.
Based on a semi-autobiographical novel of the same name, Miral chronicles the stories of four Palestinian women. The Arab-Israeli War of 1948 serves as the backdrop for the first story, that of Hind Husseini, a social worker who discovers a band of orphaned Palestinians in the war-torn streets of Jerusalem. Taking them in, she founds an orphanage and school that becomes a safe haven for many more Palestinian children, including a child named Miral later on. Before Hind’s story arc feels complete, the movie abruptly cuts to the story of Nadia, a young woman abused by her father who flees home to become a belly dancer.
When an act of rebellion lands her in prison, she encounters Fatima, a cellmate serving three life sentences for terrorism. After making it out of prison, Nadia finds a loving husband in Fatima’s brother Jamal, but remains plagued by her traumatic past. With Nadia descending into alcoholism, Jamal must place the five-year-old Miral in the care of Hind’s institute. After arriving there in 1978, Miral studies Hind’s pacifist teachings, but by the time she reaches the age of 16 (just after the first Intifada, a Palestinian resistance movement), she becomes fully aware of her people’s horrific struggles. Now she must choose between the paths of peaceful education or violent insurgence.
While this dilemma might have been the framing for a gripping coming-of-age narrative, the story ends up lacking suspense and urgency. With an unfocused four-part structure, Miral attempts a more poetic route, with the stories intending to serve as thematic counterpoints to one another. The result is not nearly as impacting as the filmmakers might have hoped. Schnabel’s choice to film on location in Jerusalem is commendable and often pays off with strong imagery and a sense of authenticity. However, a constant bombardment of subtitled historical footage dilutes the story and borders on turning the movie into a history lesson.
Also working against the film is the underdeveloped protagonist of Miral. Instead of investigating the nuances in her conflict between peace and armed resistance, Schnabel paints the dilemma in black and white. Though rising star Pinto exudes plenty of screen presence, she doesn’t deliver the layered performance that might have elevated her character. Also, for a film that attempts at realism, the choice of a mainstream Indian actress in the role of a Palestinian seems incongruous.
Perhaps more noteworthy than the movie itself is the string of controversies that have surrounded it. The American Jewish Committee branded the film as portraying Israel “in a highly negative light” and went as far as calling upon the U.N. to cancel a sponsored screening. Adding another layer of intrigue is that both the film’s distributor Harvey Weinstein and Schnabel himself are Jewish. Schnabel has defended the film by stating that the story portrays Palestinian characters, and by necessity must present their point of view. Capturing a different perspective of the conflict than one might be accustomed to does seem like a worthwhile endeavor. In the age of Michael Moore and Oliver Stone, it’s rare to find a contemporary issue film without a political agenda. However, this lack of verve extends into the storytelling and ends up deflating the movie. What might make for an interesting human interest piece in the New York Times does not always translate into an enjoyable moviegoing experience.
Bottom Line: The controversial film about four women amid the Palestinian-Israeli conflict forgoes story for honesty and comes up short.