"Miral": controversial film paints Middle East mirage

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Movie Review

Miral
Directed by Julian Schnabel, written by Rula Jebreal, starring Hiam Abbass and Freida Pinto, 112 mins, www.miralmovie.com/

Painter and filmmaker Julian Schnabel's latest venture onto the screen is a controversial adaptation of Rula Jebreal's novelistic memoir of her childhood and youth beginning just around the time of the Nakba, otherwise known as Israel's war of independence.

Schnabel's principal films up to now have been Before Night Falls (2000), featuring Javier Bardem, and The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (2007), which received four Oscar nominations. Jebreal now lives in Italy as a well-known TV journalist. The two met at a reception in 2007 for one of his art shows, and they are now lovers. It took nothing away from Schnabel's empathy with the Jewish people and the State of Israel, to add an understanding of the parallel history that is the Palestinian epic.

Miral oozes with humanity. As one valid artistic interpretation of the modern Middle Eastern predicament from a Palestinian perspective, the film could equally be the story of any violated people - say, the Jews at another time. Squint at this filmic mirage and you can descry the landscape of oppression that most resonates in your personal and tribal experience. 

Schnabel is meticulous in depicting the range of responses to oppression through the myriad of characters he deploys. Miral's respectable schoolmistress counsels prudence and patience; her father seems to hide in his mosque, escaping into resignation, avoiding conflict; the terrorist plants a bomb in a movie theatre (significantly as the rape scene in Roman Polanski's Repulsion unspools); the insurrectionist of the intifada slams the Jewish birthright of "return" to the Holy Land, all the while encroaching settlements suggest an Israeli push to occupy all of Palestine ... without Palestinians.

On the Jewish Israeli side there are crimes without end, starting with the 1948 destruction of Deir Yassin, the whole population of the village slaughtered, their homes reduced to rubble. And arrest, prison, beatings, harsh sentences, fines, refugee camps, families uprooted, all indelible episodes in any Palestinian's résumé. But there's also a Jewish-Arab love affair to consider, a ray of cross-cultural hope for the future, perhaps.

As could be expected, several influential Jewish organizations, such as the American Jewish Committee and the Simon Wiesenthal Center, issued condemnations of the "pro-Palestinian," "anti-Israel" film. Schnabel, and film producer Harvey Weinstein (responsible for The King's Speech), have suddenly and predictably been marginalized in those quarters as "self-hating Jews." Yet prominent Jewish media, and other organizations, like Clal, the National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership, praised Miral unstintingly for presenting a narrative Jews badly need to hear if any reconciliation can ever happen.

Schnabel films like a painter. Impressionistic imagery, such as the water in the suicide scene of Miral's mother, reflects his neo-Expressionist artistic style. There's an anecdote that the actress who portrayed the mother was afraid of water, and Rula Jebreal, the factual "Miral" of the story, acted that scene herself. After Schnabel said, "Cut," Jebreal stayed in character and continued swimming. He asked her why, and she responded, "To wash my mother off me."

Perhaps that is what the Middle East needs-a good long bath to rinse off the archeological strata of suspicion, depression, dislocation, and hate.

Another arty touch throughout this film is the remarkable score. No pastiche of wailing muezzins and soulful ouds and belly dance music, the soundscape revels in contra-indication: Scenes of violence and rebellion are played out to soft meditative mood pieces by the likes of Laurie Anderson and Ennio Morricone, reflecting the interior states of the (historical) actors at moments of life-changing tension. Singers Tom Waits and Lou Reed are heard. Incongruously? Future film students will certainly analyze these provocative choices.

Starring Freida Pinto (of Slumdog Millionaire fame) as Miral, the film is a multinational production shot in Jerusalem, Haifa, Ramallah, and many other locales. It had a much commented-upon premiere showing at the United Nations on March 14, underlining and perhaps nudging global support for a final peace agreement. The film ends on the eve of the Oslo Agreement signing, and is dedicated with a kind of tired optimism to the people on both sides who believe peace is still possible. Progress report: Oslo is still the capital of Norway.

 

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