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Friday, April 15, 2011

Miral

Boy, this was one tricky movie to review. Not just because it was actually a while since I'd seen it but because, as is the case with anything dealing with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, it's hard not to insert your own opinions into the mix. But then, since the movie didn't shy away from its own polemic views on the matter, why should I? 

From Artslink.co.za (Originally posted 15 April 2011)


    
Now, here's a tricky one. Miral deals with a very touchy subject and it's impossible not to bring your own biases and viewpoints to bear on the film. The touchy subject in this case is, of course, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and - quite unlike something like Spielberg's very even-handed Munich – director Julian Schnabel presents a film that is shamelessly and unapologetically biased in its political leanings.

Summarising the rambling and multi-stranded plot of the film is an exercise in both futility and exhaustion. The Internet Movie Database, for example, provides the following as a description of the film: “A drama centered on an orphaned Palestinian girl growing up in the wake of Arab-Israeli war who finds herself drawn into the conflict.” Aside for the obvious typo that would fit right in with my own long history of typing eras, the problem with that synopsis is that it tells a mere fraction of the film's – and I use this term loosely – narrative.

The “orphaned Palestinian girl” is the Miral of the title but not only is it not a given that she actually is the film's central protagonist, her flirtation with terrorism is only one part of her character. There is also the question of her dying father – an illness that has nothing to do with the actual conflict, incidentally, and has little to do with her wanting to take up terrorism – as well as her friendship with a (crucially) non-army going Israeli girl. And that's just Miral's story. There is also the story of another woman, Hind Husseini, played brilliantly by Hiam Abass, who opens up a school for neglected or orphaned Palestinian children. Along with all this, we get a random scene that seems to be there primarily to allow Vanessa Redgrave and Willem Defoe a platform for their own political beliefs.

It's basically a total mess. A classic example of what is presumably a complex novel just not working at all in its translation to film. Having not read it, I don't know how Rula Jebreal balances these many plot threads and themes but Schnabel makes a total pig’s ear out of it. You can't fault him for lack of ambition but, on a pure storytelling level, Miral is an epic failure. To think that this is the same Julian Schnabel who made the magnificent Diving Bell and the Butterfly is almost unbelievable. That Miral has none of the visual flair of The Diving Bell and the Butterfly only makes the whole thing all the more befuddling.

There is also the matter of Freida Pinto as Miral. She was terrific in her breakout role in Slumdog Millionaire and she does a perfectly decent job here. The only problem is – and this is something that clearly went right over the studio execs' heads, though certainly not over everybody else's – Frieda Pinto is an Indian, not an Arab. This may make little difference to some people but this is basically the same as getting Zach Braff to play Mohammed Ali. It's just such a strange decision, it's hard to even know what to make of it.

The film, on its own terms then, flat out doesn't work on any basic narrative or filmmaking levels. It's a crushing disappointment after the monumental artistic success of The Diving Bell and the Butterfly and it should probably best be left forgotten when evaluating Schnabel's career at a later date.

Here's the thing though: however much the film itself failed to connect with me, I was still engrossed, despite myself, by its politics – though not because I agree with them, you understand. I consider myself to be a fairly liberal Zionist – taking the (very) basic viewpoint that for there to be lasting peace in that region, the needs and the rights of both Israelis and Palestinians have to be taken into consideration – but however far I may be from some die hard, far-right Zionist hard-liners, I am equally far from the viewpoint so clearly espoused by Schanbel and Jebreal.

Miral struck me as a film that, more than just being pro-Palestinian, was actually outwardly and obviously anti-Israeli. While the Palestinian characters are rightly shown to be a complex group of individuals who certainly don't all share the blindly fanatical anti-Israel, anti-Jew, anti-Westerner, anti-almost-everybody view of the world that is associated with their most extreme elements, the Israelis in the film are portrayed as a bunch of cruel, despicable thugs – with the exception of one girl who makes the very crucial distinction that she never joined the Israeli army. And when it brings up, for example, The Six Day War it is heavily implied that it was all Israel's fault and that the Arab nations involved in it were poor hapless victims.

I bring this up not to – Heaven forbid – suggest that the film should be banned but actually to say that this viewpoint that I so thoroughly disagree with is far and away the best thing about Miral and is in fact the only reason to bother with it in the first place. It's not much of a film but it is one hell of a talking point.

And remember to keep in mind when you are discussing the film's politics that these are the views raised by a filmmaker who is not only himself Jewish but was raised by a mother who was a very active part of the American women's Zionist group, Hadassa during the formation of the Jewish State. Taking that into account only deepens the political, humanist and moral questions that the film raises.

And by “raises”, I do of course mean “smacks you over the head with”.

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