Milling about during the opening Christmas party of Miral, Julian Schnabel’s contribution to the Israel-Palestine debate, is no less than Vanessa Redgrave. At the scene’s climax, she toasts to briefly putting political differences aside. If that sounds awkward coming from someone who has a thing or two to say about “Zionist thugs,” sometimes during Oscar ceremonies, then welcome to the muddled intentions of Schnabel’s wouldbe salvo.
A mini-epic spanning the creation of Israel in 1948 to the still-never-implemented 1993 Oslo peace accords, Miral keeps things personal. Though the titular little girl doesn’t man the narrative reins till the hour mark, the first half acts as a survey of the strong women of Palestine through the years, moving from Hiam Abbas as orphanage-creator Hind al-Husseini through to Miral’s martyr-like mom Nadia (Yasmine Al Massri), who escaped being raped by her father, served jail time and submerged herself, beautifully, in the sea. Miral grows up to be Slumdog Millionaire ’s Freida Pinto, as well as torn between two ideologies: the reticent, apolitical non-stance held by Hind and her kindly surrogate father (Alexander Siddig) versus the dashing revolutionary theatrics of sexy Hani (Omar Metwally).
Excepting the Plain Jane-looking (but otherwise superior) Basquiat, Schnabel’s forte is sensualism bordering on camp. Every shot in Before Night Falls and The Diving Bell and the Butterfly is a goddamn beaut; only when the films went for deeper (or “deeper”) meaning did they falter. Miral goes light on style, mostly falling back on handheld and the occasional odd angle. (The anomaly is a bomb-placing scene set in a theater showing Polanski’s Repulsion, which studies the potential victims’ faces as they’re rapt in cinematic ecstasy.) Schnabel claims he knew nothing about the Palestine-Israel issue before reading the novel by Rula Jebreal, who wrote the screenplay, and it shows: he approaches the Palestine-Israel issue emotionally but rarely intellectually, and while he wants to piss people off, he doesn’t want to piss them off too much. Miral steps back before it ever gets truly offensive. Its saving grace, in a sense, is that it fails to engage with its thorny issue. Like its Slumdog Millionaire-borrowed star, who can do puppy love but less so the fate of the West Bank, it’s pretty—very, very pretty—and vacant.