Drowning in war's undertow
By Sean O'Connell
Friday, April 1, 2011
Julian Schnabel’s “Miral” is a thinking person’s war movie. It’s the polar opposite of the empty, shoot-em-up blockbusters clogging multiplexes. Instead, this is the sort of combat film that strives to understand the emotional and physical consequences a military conflict can have on the individuals caught up in the violent undertow of war.
Schnabel’s fourth feature uses compassion and a minimal amount of political discourse to document the assorted ways that the decades-spanning Israeli-Palestinian conflict affected three generations of forceful female characters.
Working from screenwriter Rula Jebreal’s adaptation of her own novel, Schnabel eschews a traditional straight-line narrative and ping-pongs with enviable precision through key historical moments from 1947 to 1994. He illuminates how Hind al-Husseini’s (Hiam Abbass) hasty formation of an orphanage for Palestinian refugee children changed the lives of wayward teenager Miral (Freida Pinto of “Slumdog Millionaire”) and her suicidal mother, Nadia (Yasmine Al Massri).
But because there’s a lot of ground to cover, Schnabel regularly shifts the perspective from which “Miral” is told while always maintaining his singular message of hope. The result is a humanitarian first act reserved for Hind’s story, followed by a tumultuous second act surrounding Nadia’s plight, giving way to a fiery third act filtered through Miral’s rebellious eyes.
Not that anyone purchasing a ticket to a Schnabel film should expect Hollywood convention. A renowned painter who arrived late to the filmmaking game, Schnabel has shown a tendency to swim against the mainstream when it comes to storytelling. His early biopics, “Basquiat” and “Before Night Falls,” painted portraits of starving artists that transcended their inherent cliches and commented intelligently on drug addiction, homosexuality, homelessness and AIDS. But it was his masterpiece, “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly,” that displayed the ultimate contradiction, as Schnabel somehow managed to relay a truth-based story of a hospitalized man whose soul is liberated by his near-total paralysis.
The emotional and spiritual component of those previous films is in shorter supply for “Miral,” partly because for the first time in his directorial career, Schnabel doesn’t have a commanding performance from an Oscar-worthy lead actor on which to hang his visual tricks. Pinto, although gorgeous, isn’t Javier Bardem or Mathieu Amalric — past Schnabel collaborators who often said more with a glance than they ever could with a measured speech. Pinto taps into the resistant spirit of an angry young generation that has only known political unrest in Jerusalem. But “Miral” is far more interesting when seasoned actors such as Abbass or the great Alexander Siddig — in a small role as Miral’s father — are holding court.
What “Miral” lacks in performance art, Schnabel attempts to replace with design. The visual wizard makes good use of newsreel footage to create urgency in his drama. And his reliance on hand-held cameras placed at unexpectedly intimate angles puts us front and center in this compelling, do-the-right-thing drama.
Some might not be comfortable with where “Miral” stands, though. Already there has been debate in the media about Schnabel’s right, as a Jewish American man, to make this film from the perspective of Palestinian women. But any potential controversies brought to the table belong to individual audience members only, as “Miral” is partisan to the point of being marginalized. Schnabel avoids taking a political stance, dedicating the film “to everyone on both sides who still believe peace is possible.”
Is he one of those believers? That’s hard to say. “Miral” concludes with a historic occasion — the 1993 signing of the Oslo Accords, which created a two-state compromise for Israel and Palestine — yet Schnabel undercuts some of his momentum by admitting on a title card that the treaty never was enforced. To be fair, it must be difficult to devise a satisfying ending when the conflict at the heart of your story remains.
Contains some violent material, including a sexual assault.