SHORT TAKE: “Miral” (**)

Posted by · 5:06 am · September 2nd, 2010

Venice Film Festival

Coming as it does from a filmmaker whose previous work has bent over backwards to reclothe and perfume the unglamorous body of the prestige biopic, the opening beats of Julian Schnabel’s latest, “Miral,” couldn’t be more prosaic.

For a good few minutes, the credit sequence offers the eye little more than a dawdling pan over a fuzzy map of the Israel-Palestine region, ennobling music thrumming away. (The blocky purple credits themselves are hideous, by the way, but that’s already the least of our problems.) Surprises aren’t exactly forthcoming when we the credits wrap and our geography lesson is complete: “My name is Miral,” intones Freida Pinto in a helpful introductory voiceover. “I was born in 1973, but my story really begins in 1947.”

Except it doesn’t; another woman’s does, however, and it’s the first of several admissions of the film’s own uncertainty as to why it’s here in the first place. The first of Schnabel’s biopics to come with a moderate fictional sheen, it’s scripted by Rula Jebreal — an international political journalist who became conscientized during her teenage years at an embattled Jerusalem orphanage — from her openly autobiographical novel, though it loftily purports to be about three generations of Palestinian women working toward independence.

Chapter-like intertitles foretell evenly divided attention between said generations, though it’s a markedly empty promise: fussy editing working overtime against lumpen construction, the film impatiently checks off Hiam Abbass, as indubitably earnest orphanage founder Hind Husseini, and Yasmine Al Massri, as Miral’s alcoholic mother, before landing to roost for the remaining 90 minutes on the relentlessly lovely skin of Freida Pinto as Miral/Rula herself. (So cursory are these acts that there’s scarcely time to wonder why Vanessa Redgrave is suddenly on screen with woolly foliage in her hair, beyond the possibility that some enterprising casting assistant saw “Zionist” in the film’s word-cloud and promptly rang her agent.)

Abbass, saddled with an old-age wig and glasses that liken her distractingly to “Will & Grace”‘s cantankerous maid Rosario, at least gets to hang about for the duration of the piece on succour-provision duty, but from there on, “Miral”‘s character network is as pencil-sketched as its politics.

The film’s purposeful narrowing of its narrative avenues to the 17 year-old Miral’s gradual involvement in the liberation movement, via a romance with Omar Metwally’s hard-headed activist, would be fine if there was any evidence of an inner life to Miral herself; as played with more effort than effect by Pinto, however, she’s little more than a sounding-board for rival moral and political stances, hardly assisted by chunky, cloth-eared dialogue like, “Thank you for protecting me and loving me all these years… I am so proud to be your daughter.” (She is given several such homilies to deliver, all of them veritable death warrants for the character at the receiving end.)

For Schnabel’s part, his stated passion for the material is scarcely evident in his screen treatment thereof, which rather awkwardly welds his pet visual and sonic tics onto a narrative that struggles to support them. (By the time he chooses to soundtrack a traditional Palestinian funeral with a phlegmy Tom Waits dirge, you wonder whether the director is treating Jebreal’s work as an elaborate exercise to prove that, look, any story can become A Julian Schnabel Film.) Whereas Schnabel’s florid artistic sensibility previously successfully established a kind of empathy with fellow creative subjects like Reynaldo Arenas or Jean-Dominique Bauby, his approach feels both shoe-horned and faintly disingenuous in this context.

Enlightening neither as emotional essay nor as straight-up history lecture, then, “Miral”‘s tricksy oat-bran filmmaking seemingly lands shy of every imaginable target audience: it’s too dry for the middlebrow awards set that might otherwise thrill to its superficially good intentions, too didactic for the highbrow intelligentsia that turned out for the director’s previous outings, and too dull for just about everybody. “I feel so useless, I really want to do something,” frets Miral midway through the movie; it’s indicative of the film’s minimal emotional investment in its protagonist that the reply to this confession is: “You have beautiful eyes.”

[Image: The Weinstein Company]

→ 34 Comments Tags: , , , , , , , | Filed in: Reviews

34 responses so far

  • 1 9-02-2010 at 5:15 am

    Glenn said...

    Oh Guy, you’ve outdone yourself. The quips about Vanessa Redgrave, Will & Grace, Miral’s eyes and hideous credit sequences made me laugh. This wasn’t exactly high on my list of movies I was needing to see (but I wasn’t a big fan of “Diving Bell and the Butterfly” either), but this sounds truly like dirge. Yikes.

  • 2 9-02-2010 at 5:20 am

    ninja said...

    This review is exactly what I was hoping to hear about this movie. :)

    Go Black Swan and Natalie!

  • 3 9-02-2010 at 5:36 am

    The Other James D. said...

    Everything I’ve read about this film, including your review, gives me the impression that it’s less an inspired biopic and more a 2+ hour acting class for Pinto.

  • 4 9-02-2010 at 6:13 am

    Jim T said...

    How did this movie gain prestige in the first place? because of the subject and Pinto?

  • 5 9-02-2010 at 6:24 am

    andrew said...

    Pinto is very hot

  • 6 9-02-2010 at 6:27 am

    Duncan Houst said...

    So you’re saying that, politic controversy aside, this film just isn’t worth it. Then would you say, in your professional opinion, that this film has any chance at Oscar glory?

  • 7 9-02-2010 at 6:28 am

    Tye-Grr said...

    Haha, thanks for the review, and for injecting some humor in it to start my morning off with a laugh. ‘Miral’ was always a film I was just curious about, but consider that cat dead.

  • 8 9-02-2010 at 6:30 am

    emmanuelle said...

    Hey guys popular critic Derek malcolm has appreciated this film……………………………………………………………Julian schnabe lthe New York painter and film maker, has studied victims and outsiders in each of his last three films. Miral is no different.
    His victim this time is a Palestinian girl living in Israel who is eventually radicalised by the indignities heaped upon her people day by day.

    Miral, who is sent to an orphanage in Jerusalem when her mother dies, is just one of the Palestinian women we see. Many lives are derailed by the events portrayed as Schnabel traces Israel’s history from its beginnings in the Forties to the destruction of refugee camps in the Nineties.

    The film moves backwards and forwards in time, sometimes confusingly. But its point is well made. Apart from Willem Dafoe and Vanessa Redgrave, who take only minor parts, the cast are virtually unknown in the west. But they play with an emotional skill that points up the story convincingly.

    The film is taken from a book by Rula Jebreal, who co-wrote the screenplay and describes the film as a cry for peace detailing the consequences of political and cultural violence and taking in both domestic and sexual abuse.

    There is a comforting side to the story as we see the brave founder of the orphanage, which started with 50 children and ended with nearly 1,000, fighting to keep her school open despite the obstacles placed in her way by the Israeli government.

    Despite its fragmentary style, it’s appropriate that the film should be shown at Venice as President Obama attempts to re-launch the Middle East peace process.

  • 9 9-02-2010 at 6:32 am

    cullenista said...

    @emmanuelle:Thanks for posting the review.Derek is a very famous critic in london.

  • 10 9-02-2010 at 6:34 am

    The Other James D. said...

    Invasion of the Pinto tards. ♥

  • 11 9-02-2010 at 6:36 am

    emmanuelle said...

    Indie wire critic also gave positive reveiw……….
    Venice Day Two: Schnabel’s Miral is Heartfelt, Political Palestinian Drama
    Thompson on Hollywood

    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.

  • 12 9-02-2010 at 6:40 am

    The Other James D. said...

    Anne’s IndieWire review is not positive at all.

  • 13 9-02-2010 at 6:47 am

    bellezza con cervello said...

    Im too joining the review posting.Here is the review from popular Italian critic…………….Miral’s also a painter and filmmaker Schnabel Giulian, other films in competition, tells a love story between a girl that Israeli – Palestinian and PLO leader, killed unjustly because of his own comrades in favor of negotiations with the rulers’ Israel. In this case, however, the eye is focused on the history of Middle Eastern states, since 1948, the year of recognition by the UN until the first intifada. The thread offers him the story of a Palestinian school for abandoned children, The City of the Child, founded by Hind Hussein and still open to fourteen years of his death. The director has a vocation to use, especially in the first part, crooked shots, unusual angles, fast image rotation, styles that sometimes come to annoy and bewilder the spectator. Defects that are already being noticed in films like Basquiat (1996) and The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (2007), the latter won the prize for best director at Cannes the same year. Finally work is evocative images, pacifist in intent, sometimes movingly, sometimes very good

  • 14 9-02-2010 at 7:02 am

    Glenn said...

    Emmanuel, Bellezza, a simple link would be fine! Very disrespectful to Guy to just go posting other people’s reviews.

  • 15 9-02-2010 at 7:05 am

    The Other James D. said...

    Yowza, I have my very own impostor–and for some reason, he’s heterosexual!

    I agree with you, Glenn. This ain’t a Metacritic clusterfuck. Besides, posting others’ reviews isn’t somehow going to sway Guy positively.

  • 16 9-02-2010 at 7:12 am

    qwiggles said...

    Sad, as I’ve been with Schnabel every step so far. Solid review. Greatly enjoying the fans of Slumdog — I have to guess? — haunting this thread. I had no idea Pinto was some kind of patron saint of the wayward to pay tribute to on Oscar sites.

  • 17 9-02-2010 at 7:13 am

    reuben said...

    That wasn’t very short.

  • 18 9-02-2010 at 7:19 am

    Duncan Houst said...

    “You have beautiful eyes!”

    I’m officially going to use that phrase whenever somebody asks me a question I don’t know the answer to.

  • 19 9-02-2010 at 7:59 am

    Amanda said...

    Miral has got great reviews from italian critics.

  • 20 9-02-2010 at 8:27 am

    The Dude said...

    I loved “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly” (one of my top 10 of the past decade), so I’m a bit disappointed that you didn’t like it, Guy. Then again, the trailer itself was nothing to get riled up about, so I don’ exactly know what I was expecting.

    You’ve seen two of my most anticipated of the year in two days…all that’s left is “Somewhere.” Make sure to drop by to share your thoughts on that one ;)

    (and FWIW I think I can say, from all of the readers, that we really appreciate the timeliness of your posts…you’ve got to be incredibly busy and tired and yet you’re posting pretty frequently…don’t think it’s going unnoticed!)

  • 21 9-02-2010 at 8:40 am

    Jason smith said...

    Im really wondering how critics from italy has called this one of the best of the year while reviews from american critics are mixed.I Just read 6 reviews from famous critics here and all said the film is very good and they have even liked pinto’s performance.

  • 22 9-02-2010 at 8:51 am

    Dominik said...

    Yeah, I don´t know what to think about it.
    I haven´t seen a single Julian Schnabel-film yet, that wasn´t at least pretty good – “The Diving Bell & the Butterfly” was my favourite movie of the past decade.
    I think we have to make up our mind on our own, right?

  • 23 9-02-2010 at 8:59 am

    Guy Lodge said...

    Newsflash, everybody: No two critics are made alike.

    @Jim T: Because of Schnabel, of course — who is usually a pretty remarkable film stylist.

    @Duncan: I’m pretty confident that the film won’t make so much as a ripple with the Academy.

    @Reuben: No, it wasn’t, was it? My full-length reviews tend to hover around 900-1000 words. Short takes should be half that, but this one ran over. More bang for your buck.

  • 24 9-02-2010 at 9:49 am

    James D. said...

    Sad to hear, but it had bad vibes all over it.

  • 25 9-02-2010 at 10:01 am

    kid said...

    This is very upsetting. It seems two of the films I was most excited for at the beginning of the year seem to be surrounded by bad buzz. I’m still going to see it at Toronto though and I can only hope I like it more then you since Schnabel is one of my favorite directors. Good review though.

  • 26 9-02-2010 at 10:04 am

    m1 said...

    I thought Pinto was great in Slumdog Millionaire, I’m looking forward to this as well.

  • 27 9-02-2010 at 3:00 pm

    Nick Davis said...

    No compunctions about reading every word of this one, unlike the skim-job I did on your Black Swan post to keep myself (mostly) in the dark. You know I love a “short take” that cruises past the 1,000-word mark! I was rooting for this movie to be better, but you make a persuasive case. People are always saying it’s impossible to develop an informed take during the whirlwind of a festival, but you obviously have the knack, as ever!

  • 28 9-10-2010 at 2:55 am

    Ruth said...

    I wonder why on earth Schnabel choose Pinto, a pretty and reasonably good Indian actress, to play a Palestinian girl. There are many talented Palestinian actresses (either Israeli or from abroad) who would have been more suitable to play this role.

    I look forward to seeing the film because I am a big fan of Schnabel’s work and hope it will be shown in Israel.

  • 29 9-29-2010 at 11:44 am

    Dominik said...

    The bigger problem I had with “Miral” is that nearly all jews in this movie are extremely negative characters (you don´t really get to know them, with the exception of one jewish woman), while all palestines are repressed and suffering.
    As a political chronicle of the israel-palestine conflict, “Miral” is alarming simple-minded.

    Guess why all jews in this movie speak hebrew whereas all palestines speak english?? “Miral” makes clear whose voices should be heard.

    An finally, this is not a problem of the actors at all, Freida Pinto for excample needs better roles and much better dialogues to work with.

  • 30 10-31-2010 at 3:54 pm

    Bmfc said...

    I just saw “Miral” and actually is an amazing film. You have to consider that critic Guy Lodge has to put food on the table. You may ask: “Who’s paying for that food?” Mmm…ohh, i think I’m smelling blood zionist money.

    The movie is great but my english is terrible. Sorry for that.

  • 31 10-31-2010 at 3:59 pm

    Bmfc said...

    Israel is proud to present: The aggressor-victim
    Israelis have always loved victimization, not only when we were real victims, as often was the case in our history, but also when we were the aggressors, occupiers and abusers.

    Once upon a time the staple piece of clothing was the blue shirt of the Labor Movement, and songwriter Mordechai Zeira sang about it: “And it’s much better than all jewels.” A new generation has arrived, and its shirt is darker. Today it’s black and bears the legend: We are all the victims of Goldstone.

    Dozens of friends of the two Givati Brigade soldiers arrived wearing these infuriating shirts at a military court a few days ago. Their friends had been convicted of overextending their authority while risking the life of an 11-year-old, and to be precise, of conduct unbecoming of soldiers. The soldiers received the scandalous support of senior officers, and the two convicted men have become heroes.

    Israel is proud to present: The aggressor-vicitim. History has known crueler and even longer occupations than the Israeli one, and there have been much worse attacks on civilian populations than Operation Cast Lead. But there has never been an occupier who presented himself like that, as a victim.

    From the days of Golda Meir, who said we will never forgive the Arabs for forcing us to hurt their children, to the combatants who shot and wept, we have set, courtesy of the Givati troops, a new record of Israeli chutzpah: We are all the victims of Goldstone.

    The victimhood, it turns out, belongs not to an 11-year-old child whose life was put at risk and who has been suffering from insomnia ever since, but the soldiers who ordered him to check for explosives, in clear contradiction of a ruling by the Supreme Court.

    Not the Samouni family, 21 of whose members were butchered when the same Givati Brigade, under the same commander, bombed the house into which the soldiers ordered the family, but the brigade commander, Ilan Malka, whose conduct is now being investigated, shamefully late. And certainly not the residents of Gaza, who experienced Cast Lead with its hardships, horrors, destruction and war crimes, but the soldiers, who share responsibility with the commanders and politicians.

    We’ve always loved victimization, not only when we were real victims, as often was the case in our history, but also when we were the aggressors, occupiers and abusers. And we don’t only cast ourselves as victims, but as the only victims. But observe our perception of our wrongdoing. It started with denial, then changed to suppression, then to shamelessness, then to dehumanization and demonization, until we arrived at the current stage: A pride parade.

    The soldiers taking pictures of themselves dancing with prisoners and posing with corpses are proud of what they do. They upload the footage onto the Web, for all to see, and friends of the two Givati troops are equally proud of what their mates have done. They’re proud of the conduct of people who broke the law. Their solidarity may be understandable, but it’s much more difficult to understand the support of their brigade commander, Col. Moni Katz, and Maj. Gen. (res. ) Uzi Dayan.

    What are they saying – that the soldiers acted correctly? That they should not be punished? That they are victims? In that case, we have little to claim from the soldiers, who were only acting according to the spirit emanating from their superiors. But most difficult to understand is the widespread public support for the two. Just like the Nahariya policeman convicted of placing bombs to injure suspected mobsters, they are local heroes and national victims to many.

    Do we really want to be proud of the soldiers ordering children to risk their lives, in violation of the law? Is this how we want the army to behave? Will Israeli public opinion never accept that war has rules and that if Israeli soldiers break them, they must be punished? True, they may have been carrying out orders, they may have been jaded and exhausted after three weeks of the assault on Gaza, as the court has heard. But casting them as victims testifies to the chaos overtaking Israel.

    So we should go back to basics. The victims of Cast Lead are the 1.5 million residents of Gaza. The “victims” of the Goldstone report are not the two convicts, but their own victims. The shirts worn by their friends in court are proof that these basic truths have been blurred and distorted beyond recognition.