Attempting to refract the enduring conflict within the Israeli state through the lives of Palestinian women, director Julian Schnabel fails in Miral, based on an autobiographical novel by journalist Rula Jebreal, where he succeeded in Before Night Falls, his biopic of Cuban dissident Reinaldo Arenas: in penetrating the impassioned partisan’s heart. Instead, the new film’s span of nearly 50 years doesn’t lend it the scope of a political or personal epic; skimming along the traumas and victories of its heroine and her forebears, it feels undernourished as drama and incomplete as narrative, as if whittled down at the price of its characters’ depth and even the coherence of their identities. Though apparently recut since its tour of the global festivals last fall, Miral‘s problems don’t seem to be of brevity, but voice; the exposition-heavy, stilted dialogue of Jebreal’s screenplay seldom persuades, and undermines the fine cinematographer Eric Gautier’s vivid images of sun-baked schoolyards and fluorescent-bathed penal chambers.
Beginning in 1947 at an ecumenical Christmas party hosted by a beneficent Vanessa Redgrave, Schnabel first encapsulates the story of a single, prosperous Palestinian woman (Hiam Abbass) who, with the Israeli War for Independence the following year, founds a school for displaced and orphaned girls. While Abbass remains a watchable and dignified actor, her generic saintliness here resembles a feminine Gregory Peck of East Jerusalem. In the subsequent spotlight on an abused girl (Yasmine Al Massri) who escapes a domestic hell only to suffer alcoholism and incarceration, and her daughter Miral (Freida Pinto), who as one of Abbass’s students confronts the headmistress over a command to “prudently” avoid involvement with the radicals of the 1987 intifada, scenes grow bland with sentimental talk (“I love her more than my own life”) or oppression depicted with little sting, whether from newsreel clips or Miral’s abbreviated hooding and caning when jailed on suspicion of consorting with PLO-affiliated guerrillas. Flashes of vernacular humanity come from a few subsidiary characters, as when Miral’s aunt dons fundamentalist clothing to unnerve a prospective Jewish daughter-in-law, but Schnabel’s rendering of the milieu feels very much that of an outsider, and pales before the humor and gravity of Elia Suleiman’s recent The Time That Remains.