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Miral (2011)
Movie Reviews

Miral (2011)

Attempts to explore the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians, but suffers from its erratic pacing and meandering structure.

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A film like Miral shows bravery on the part of its filmmakers, clearly conscientious in their efforts to depict very delicate subject matter. Julian Schnabel, who was raised Jewish and whose mother was at one time the president of the Brooklyn chapter of Hadassah, has made a film that directly addresses the ongoing conflict between Israel and the Palestinians. It has been accused of being one-sided, but I was convinced by the dedication at the end of the film, which was directed at those on both sides who believe peace is still possible. For me, the issue is not the subject matter, but rather how the subject is presented; with a meandering structure, broad characters, severe jumps in time, and the occasional foray into overt sentimentality, the film is nowhere near as compelling as it should be.

I think part of the problem is Schnabel’s decision to cover such a wide range of history. By distilling over sixty years worth of history into less than two hours, he hinders the development of a centralized story, and the characters aren’t allowed to develop as fully as they could. He begins the film in Jerusalem in 1948 with Hind Husseini (Hiam Abbass). As she walks to work one day, she discovers over fifty homeless children, who were orphaned as a result of Arab-Israeli War, the Dier Yassin Massacre, and the formation of the state of Israel; knowing they have nowhere to go, she takes them to her grandfather’s mansion and provides them with food and shelter. This laid the groundwork for what would become the Dar Al-Tifel Institute, which, through worldwide funding, still operates to this day and is dedicated to educating and providing a safe haven for Arab children, predominantly girls.

Without a decent transition, we find ourselves in the year 1978, where we meet a seven-year-old Palestinian girl named Miral (Yolanda El Karam). When her mother dies, her father (Alexander Siddig) sends her to Husseini’s institute. There, she lives in relative ignorance of the outside world; it would too harsh to say that Husseini wants it that way, although one gets the sense that her emphasis on education is perhaps a little too idealistic, especially given her own problems with the Israeli government and the closing off of the Gaza Strip to Jerusalem. The film again flashes forward another ten years, where a now seventeen-year-old Miral (Freida Pinto) is sent to teach at a refugee camp. At last, her eyes are opened to the issues her people face. This discovery creates a rift between her and Husseini. She no longer wants to stay within the walls of the school; her people are suffering, and she wants to do what she can to make it help them.

Two relationships form during this period of her life. One is with Hani, a Palestinian militant (Omar Metwally), who’s a part of an uprising known as the First Intifada. The other is with her cousin’s fiancée, Lisa (Stella Schnabel, the director’s daughter), who happens to be Jewish. This second relationship is especially important, for the intention is to show that people of two different faiths and political orientations can indeed get along. I very much liked the idea of this subplot, for it wisely makes a clear distinction between the Israeli government and Israeli people. The execution, alas, is so simple-minded that it makes the intended emotional gravitas come off as cliché and cloying. It doesn’t help that Ms. Schnabel is given such little screen time, pretty much to the point that her character loses all credibility. You’d think with Dad as your director, you would have benefited far more from his nepotism.

Other characters are equally superfluous. I cannot, for example, explain the appearance of nephew and aunt characters played by Willem Defoe and Vanessa Redgrave, who appear only in a few early scenes as American friends of Husseini. They contribute absolutely nothing to the story. When it comes to Defoe, I can’t even explain his very casting. With Redgrave, on the other hand, one can speculate very easily: Her political activism has extended to support for the Palestine Liberation Organization. Given what little screen time she has, are we to assume that it’s not her character but merely her appearance that’s important? That the director is Jewish makes this all the more interesting.

And that’s the problem: The interest lies not with the film itself, but with the casting of just one actress. Miral has its heart in the right place, and I applaud Schnabel and screenwriter Rula Jebreal for making an attempt at a compelling movie. Perhaps they should have studied Steven Spielberg’s Munich, which not only explored similar themes, but was also infinitely more successful in doing so. The final scene of that film, for example, was devastatingly effective in its assertion that political and religious retaliation is a vicious cycle of terrorism and intolerance. The final scene of Miral features the funeral of a person who died not as a result of political upheaval, but merely of natural causes. When you compare the two, there really is no comparison at all.

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03/25/2011

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PG-13

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The Weinstein Company

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About the Author: Chris Pandolfi