While Julian Schnabel’s Miral packs an emotional punch, he tells the wrong story. I was in tears during both of the film’s bookend sections, which focus on real-life Hind Husseini (the great Hiam Abbass), a wealthy Palestinian woman who in 1948 takes it upon herself to feed, clothe, educate and house thousands of orphans left abandoned and destitute by the ongoing wars and strife in Jerusalem. Her sense of obligation and personal sacrifice moved me. She and American Willem Dafoe share feelings, but can never get together; as she tells him: “I have 2000 daughters.” While Husseini remains a character in the drama, the screenplay, adapted by Palestinian/Italian broadcaster Rula Jebreal from her semi-autobiographical novel, focuses on Miral (Indian actress Freida Pinto), a young girl born in 1973 whose widower father (Alexander Sidding) brings her to the orphanage to live during the week.
Post-1967, while older Palestinians try to steer clear of brooking any trouble with the occupying Israelis, Miral and her generation grow more militant, as they watch the Israelis tear down their homes to build their own. The harshness of the Israeli occupation –and continued mutual hatred and distrust–make the rise of the Intifada, which Miral joins, inevitable. She is arrested at 17, brutally caned and released after 24 hours. The movie ends in 1994, a year after the signing of the Oslo Middle East Peace Accord creating two separate states, which the film points out, has still never been honored. Miral goes on to become, like Jebreal, a reputable journalist working in Italy.
Clearly, Schnabel was stirred by this book to bring it to the screen, but Slumdog Millionaire star Pinto, while gorgeous, is not an expressive actress. (She likely helped to raise funding for the film produced by Jon Kilik with financing from Israel, Italy, India and France, which The Weinstein Co. will release stateside.) Her story remains expositional and flat, filled with long debates with her boyfriend Hani (Omar Metwally) about alternative routes to a Middle East solution. “What they really want is all of Palestine without Palestinians,” says Hani. “With them here there is no future for us.”
This kind of earnest agit-prop material is tough to adapt to the screen; Schnabel needed a more proficient dramatist to pull this off. He’s an elegant, visual director–he and cinematographer Eric Gautier adopt an unusual blurry technique for the more intense scenes–but this movie, while filmed on authentic Jerusalem locations, too often devolves into dull talking heads. It’s possible that the Weinsteins will fan flames of controversy around this film’s highly-charged subject. Nonetheless Miral–which will also play Telluride and Toronto– will likely remain within a narrow art-house niche.