Anchor Bay // 2010 // 106 Minutes // Rated PG-13
Reviewed by Judge William Lee (Retired) // August 24th, 2011
Is this the face of a terrorist?
Painter and filmmaker Julian Schnabel's cinematic output has been well regarded from Basquiat to The Diving Bell and the Butterfly. So I was surprised that his latest film Miral received only a very limited theatrical release. While watching the DVD, I thought it incredible that I hadn't heard about this movie before given all the praise that must have been heaped upon it. But then I checked the Internet which reveals IMDb users rate it an average five out of ten stars and the Tomatometer scores it 19 per cent based on 63 reviews. Surely, I think, they're talking about a different movie than the one I saw.
In 1948, on the streets of Jerusalem, Hind Husseini (Hiam Abbass, Amreeka) finds a group of 55 orphaned children. She opens the Dar Al-Tifel orphanage and dedicates her family's fortune to the care and education of Palestinian children affected by the turmoil in their country, now a contested land increasingly settled by Israelis. Miral (Freida Pinto, Slumdog Millionaire) arrives at the orphanage after the death of her mother. Under Hind's guidance, Miral becomes a smart and confident young woman but she is also frustrated by the unjust treatment of Palestinians by the Israelis. When she falls for a charming resistance leader, Miral gets caught up in the violent politics of her homeland.
In the years following the Second World War, the United Nations partitioned Palestine to create the state of Israel. The region has been a hot bed of tension between Jewish and Arab residents ever since. Miral tells the story of living in the region from the Palestinian perspective, based on the semi-autobiographical book by journalist Rula Jebreal. The prospect of telling the Palestinians' side of the story was such an affront to Israeli sensibilities that one bureaucrat denied the production access to a location because, he wrote in a letter, "helping you make this film would be like helping Adolf Hitler write Mein Kampf." When the film was shown at the United Nations, Jewish-American groups protested the screening without seeing the movie.
Let's step back from the politics and consider the movie for what it is rather than what some people fear it to be. Miral is an accomplished and accessible movie that sheds light on a complex situation by focusing on the experiences of regular citizens. The performances are stellar: full of strength, humanity and wisdom. The artful filmmaking fluidly tells the stories of multiple characters over a span of decades. This is one of the best movies I have seen this year and it saddens me that it hasn't reached a wider audience.
The story of the titular protagonist is not of the radicalization of an Arab woman. Miral grows up in a loving atmosphere and is educated. It is when she steps out into the world as a teacher in a refugee camp that she starts to sympathize with the frustration of her people. Yet, those who influence Miral the most -- the head mistress of the orphanage and her father (Alexander Siddig, Kingdom of Heaven) -- insist she be patient, calm and smart. Even Hani (Omar Metwally, Munich), the handsome resistance leader, prefers a negotiated resolution to the conflict. "This road is too bloody, it has no exit," he tells her. The film's point-of-view is that of citizens, not terrorists. Miral must cope with the question of how an ordinary person living in a militarily occupied land can resist without resorting to violence.
Schnabel guides us through a history that covers decades using a series of concise episodes centered on individuals. Starting with Hind Husseini and her friendship with an American soldier named Eddie (Willem Dafoe, Antichrist), the film lays the foundation for Miral's story. Later, we meet characters that will contribute to the greater story, for which Miral becomes the linchpin. Without being showy about it, Schnabel moulds time around his staging of scenes. In one scene, Miral and Hind enter a room at one point in time and then they exit the setting in a point much further in the future. Tricks like that might sound distracting but they work so well in this movie because Schnabel manages these moments with fluidity and grace.
The technical quality of the DVD is a good representation of the varied visual style of the director. Multiple film stocks are used so some scenes are grainier than others, some slightly softer, and others use a colored filter. Colors, in general, are strikingly saturated. Detail in close-ups is sharp but wider landscape views have a slightly impressionistic feel rather than a crisp and clear realism. The picture quality is quite good on this disc but I couldn't help thinking the HD transfer on a Blu-ray disc would be the preferred way to view this movie.
The surround audio is fine but the movie doesn't require an aggressive mix so it doesn't receive one. Dialogue is mostly clear in the front channel while music and effects are nicely balanced in the surround channels. There is next to no subwoofer activity.
The audio commentary by director Schnabel and producer Jon Kilik is well worth a listen. Schnabel does most of the talking and he reveals much about the production challenges. He also mentions that everyone involved with the film, including Israelis and Palestinians, was hugely supportive of the project. Occasionally, the director alludes to criticisms aimed at a performer or a creative decision but he seems to be holding back from talking directly about the movie's reception. Over the end credits, the commentary track concludes with a phone message from a fellow filmmaker. It's a nice inclusion but it's odd that they didn't edit out the caller's phone number.
The best thing about the 14-minute making-of featurette is hearing from actress Pinto and writer Rula Jebreal who sit together for an interview. Their physical likeness is remarkable and they both have interesting things to say about the character Miral. Jebreal was invaluable in the making of the movie (she and Schnabel were partners at the time) and it's nice to see her so prominently featured in the marketing and behind the scenes material.
The 30-minute Q&A held after the movie's screening at the Chicago Palestine Film Festival 2011 features Schnabel and Jebreal with three other panelists. It starts off with the director saying many of the things he covers in the commentary but it gets more interesting. Prompted by an audience question, the panel does address the critical response to the movie. Three short deleted scenes and a seven-minute tour of Schnabel's New York studio (he talks at length about a series of paintings he made following the movie's completion) round out the disc's extras.
Miral is a one-sided telling of the experience in Jerusalem, that is a valid criticism against the movie, but it doesn't pretend that it's anything else. This is the story of ordinary people living in a very difficult situation. Without elaborating on who perpetrated the Deir Yassin massacre or which side started the Six-Day War, the movie gets on with showing how these characters are affected by greater shifts of politics and power. The movie concerns real history but it is not a history lesson. What it intends to do is invite empathy from its audience by presenting a perspective that hasn't been shown. Those that label the movie propaganda are willfully ignorant.
Perhaps I am naïve to think that art cuts through politics. Or, maybe what I want to believe is that appreciators of art can see past politics. Miral is a courageous and beautiful work of art with a purpose. It is about the experiences of real people and its message is hopeful. The movie receives a high recommendation for the storytelling, the strong performances and the creative filmmaking, which are signs of its accomplished art. It also has the power to inform and generate discussion, which is the purpose of its politics.
Review content copyright © 2011 William Lee; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2013 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
Studio: Anchor Bay
* 2.35:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 106 Minutes
Release Year: 2010
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13
* Deleted Scenes