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VENICE — Sure to excite curiosity thanks to the reputation of director Julian Schnabel (“The Diving Bell and the Butterfly”) and its controversial topicality, “Miral” dramatically but unevenly explores the lives of four Palestinian women during the years of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Although too schematic and unfocused to garner much critical support, it has the kind of direct simplicity that could reach out to historically challenged audiences — a category that includes most people — and politically minded festival juries.
Inspired by the life of Palestinian-born, Western-based TV journalist Rula Jebreal, who penned the 2004 book and the screenplay, “Miral” is very much an artistic collaboration between the writer and Schnabel, a Jewish-American. The film is permeated by an American liberal sensibility and an urgency to acquaint viewers with the reality of Middle East conflict seen through Palestinian eyes. Here, the key words are “education” and “tolerance” as well as a need to defeat fanaticism on both sides.
A political film with a message can’t help but feeling a trifle old-fashioned and uncool, especially when it takes several shortcuts to make it easier for viewers to connect. One is the choice, as in Schnabel’s Cuba-set “Before Night Falls,” to film in English: only a few dashes of Arabic and Hebrew flavor the dialogue in translation.
Also, most of the hard questions are glossed over or touched on ever so lightly: terrorism, the colonies on the West Bank, the Israeli army’s wholesale destruction of Palestinian property. Rather than breaking ground, the film feels like a refresher course on the region’s historical basics, but this back-to-school approach, which is fairly well done, could help widen the story’s appeal even if it loses more sophisticated audiences.
The story begins when the narrator asserts, “I was born in 1973, but my story really begins in 1947,” the year the state of Israel was declared, and the film starts back then during a Christmas party hosted by Vanessa Redgrave for Jerusalem’s liberal international community.
Present is Hind Husseini (Hiam Abbass), a wealthy young woman who is shortly to open the doors of her family home to 55 orphans, left homeless by the war. Hind is convinced that the Palestinian women of tomorrow need a solid education, and her orphanage, Dar El-Tifl, becomes a school and haven for these girls, whose ranks soon swell to the hundreds.
There could be no more appropriate casting than the dignified, self-possessed Abbass, a leading Palestinian actress, to celebrate Husseini’s noble vision and self-sacrifice. But there is little time for her to get a dramatic grip on Husseini the woman. Willem Dafoe, in a cameo as a goodhearted American officer who lends a helping hand, offers a whiff of a love interest, but their romance has no time to develop before the story of Nadia takes over.
Nadia (Yasmine Al Massri) is introduced as a teenager being raped by her father as her little sister looks on in terror. Running away from home, she becomes a belly-dancer and descends into alcoholism before a silly incident on a bus gets her thrown in prison. The short rape scene, and her unhappy career as a belly dancer summed up in a single painful shot of her gyrating waist are gems of understated filmmaking, the sort of banal tragedy that rings very true.
Nadia’s sad-eyed cellmate is Fatima (Ruba Blal), a nurse-turned-terrorist, who has received three life sentences for putting a bomb in a theater. This is the closest the film ever gets to condemning terrorism, and a montage of faces of the innocent audience members intently watching Roman Polanski’s “Repulsion” as the bomb ticks away is one of the film’s most harrowing scenes.
But back to bad-girl Nadia, who miraculously finds a loving husband in a goodhearted Islamic leader (Alexander Siddig). Sadly, her psychological scars run too deep, and she plunges back into booze and loose living. She leaves behind a small daughter, Miral, whom the father is forced to place in Husseini’s care.
It is only at this late point that the story finally settles down and focuses on Miral, now 17 (played by the distractingly attractive young Indian actress Freida Pinto of “Slumdog Millionaire”.) Neither her love story with young PLO leader Hani (Omar Metwally) nor her dangerous involvement in the liberation movement during the first Intifada of 1987 — which ends in a brief arrest and torture scene — feels convincingly developed.
Instead, the closing scenes hurry on to illustrate other material, including the frowned-upon love affair between Miral’s cousin and a Jewish girl (played by Schnabel’s real-life daughter, Stella) and the Oslo peace talks, which inspire Miral to become a journalist.
Much to his credit, it is remarkable how Schnabel avoids all the high dramatic moments — warfare, exploding bombs, dead children, hospital gore — that are the bread and butter of many if not most international movies set in the Middle East. Even his measured use of newsreel footage avoids exploiting the grisly. Determined to close the film on a note of hope, Schnabel captures Israel Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin’s last moments on Earth but cuts just before the assassin’s fatal bullet is fired.
In a film heavily dosed with musical commentary, Schnabel is listed as “music supervisor” to an eclectic, sometimes-improbable assortment of tunes, from Laurie Anderson to Ennio Morricone and Tom Waits.
Venue: Venice Film Festival (Competition)
Production: Pathe Production, ER Prods., Eagle Pictures, India Take One Prods.
Cast: Hiam Abbass, Freida Pinto, Yasmine Al Massri, Ruba Blal, Alexander Siddig, Omar Metwally, Stella Schnabel, Willem Dafoe, Vanessa Redgrave
Director: Julian Schnabel
Screenwriter/based on the novel “Miral” by: Rula Jebreal
Producer: Jon Kilik
Executive producers: Francois-Xavier Decraene, Sonia Raule
Co-producers: Jerome Seydoux, Sebastian Silva, Tarak Ben Ammar, Tabrez Noorani, Eran Riklis
Director of photography: Eric Gautier
Production designer: Yoel Herzberg
Costume designer: Walid Mawed
Editor: Juliette Welfling
Sales Agent: Pathe
No rating, 112 minutes
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