Misinterpretations of “Miral” as a haphazard biography or didactic political plea are bound to keep Julian Schnabel’s latest film from reaching full and fair appreciation. This gentle, heartfelt story is not so much about Israel’s turbulent political history since its birth in 1948, and it’s not about the subsequent Palestinian struggle for freedom, though both these form the film’s basis. And, though it follows the interconnected lives of four Palestinian women over four decades, it’s not really a nuanced portrait of any of them either. Rather, Schnabel has made a poem on film – and here is an artist adept at them – dedicated to simple, pure ideas. For, ultimately, “Miral” is about love, devotion and dreams, all as they relate to how we raise our children, the bonds among fathers, mothers and daughters, and the youthful ideals for a better, more peaceful future for ourselves and each other.
Schnabel expresses these ideas not by way of a gripping narrative, layered characterizations and subtext, the usual tools for dramatic filmmakers to put across Big Ideas. Rather, the most profound moments in “Miral” take place without any dialogue, moments in which the sounds and textures – often just a face or gesture in close-up, a landscape or even a billowing, sunlit curtain – accompanied by the film’s gorgeously evocative score (music contributors include Laurie Anderson, A.R. Rahman, Ennio Morricone and Tom Waits), provide everything the viewer needs.
The film introduces us to four women, beginning with Hind Husseini (Hiam Abbass), the real-life founder of a boarding school for orphaned Palestinian children. Hind, who died in 1994, believed that education was the only foundation on which peace and prosperity for her people could be achieved. We also meet Nadia (Yasmine Al Massri), an abused and alcoholic runaway who dances for money and is sent to prison for a short stretch following a public altercation. In prison, Nadia finds friendship with Fatima (Ruba Bial), a former nurse who turned to terrorism in support of nationalist ideals. Finally, we meet Miral (Freida Pinto), Nadia’s daughter, who is raised primarily by the religious, compassionate Jamal (Alexander Siddig), Nadia’s husband, because Nadia herself is too self-destructive to tend to her.
Fearing that the brewing regional conflicts of the 70’s may jeopardize Miral’s future, Jamal enrolls her at Hind’s school. There, Miral flourishes. But in the 80’s, as the Intifada rages, she becomes increasingly politicized, galvanized by her innate sense of injustice and by her love for Hani (Omar Metwally), a Palestinian revolutionary. Schnabel follows Miral as she negotiates which direction to chart her future, whether to plunge down the path of militancy or to honor the dreams of self-betterment that Hind and Jamal hold out for her. In that sense, “Miral” is a traditional coming-of-age story, its concerns rooted in personal dreams and aspirations.
Adapting her own novel, Rula Jebreal’s screenplay points to her inexperience with dramatic scene writing and character development. The dialogue is stilted, too on-the-nose as characters often become mouthpieces for a collective ideology, and it lacks subtlety and subtext. Stories with overt political themes, especially written by non-dramatists, often fall into this trap, resulting in uneven performances as less skilled players can’t gracefully hurdle the clunky scene-craft. Thankfully, “Miral” overrides its screenwriting flaws with Schnabel’s uncanny sense of film art. While there is too heavy an emphasis on roving, hand-held close-ups, the film’s aesthetic on the whole is a beautiful marriage of imagery, music and sound. That the star of the show here is the filmmaking itself, capable of conveying deep personal themes, is a testament to Schnabel’s rare and gifted command of the medium.
Directed by: Julian Schnabel
Written by: Rula Jebreal
Cast: Hiam Abbass, Freida Pinto, Yasmine Al Massri, Ruba Blal, Alexander Siddig, Omar Metwally, Stella Schnabel, Willem Dafoe, Vanessa Redgrave