With his last film, 2007's "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly," director Julian Schnabel used a fragmented narrative technique to convey the interior life of a man who's paralyzed and incapable of speaking after a stroke. Approaching his story this way not only romanticized his memories, but also made his reality even more poignant.
Schnabel's latest film, "Miral," also comes at us in pieces. But instead of coalescing into a complete and powerful story, it merely feels unfocused as it meanders through the lives of four Palestinian women living in Israel. It has some vivid, lovely imagery and provocative uses of perspective — as you would expect from any film this longtime artist makes — as well as a couple of strong performances, but ultimately seems overlong and unsatisfying.
Based on the semi-autobiographical book by journalist Rula Jebreal (who also wrote the screenplay), "Miral" actually begins just before the birth of Israel in 1948. Schnabel depicts this period — which features a brief cameo from Vanessa Redgrave, a longtime supporter of Palestinian causes — with the nostalgic light of a faded photograph.
The first woman it follows is a quiet force named Hind Husseini (Hiam Abbass), who stumbles upon dozens of children, orphaned by war, huddling together on a Jerusalem street. She does what she knows she must: brings them home to her father's estate, feeds and shelters them and creates a school to serve as their haven. Abbass is lovely and brings tremendous grace to the role, even as she ages over the span of about four decades.
Next up is Nadia (Yasmine Al Massri), who will become the title character's mother. An abusive childhood leads to a self-destructive life of heavy drinking, promiscuity and crime. While in prison, she meets Fatima (Ruba Blal), a former nurse who's now serving three life sentences for a botched terrorist plot — a tense scene in an Israeli movie theater. She also meets Fatima's brother during one of his visits, the kind and religious Jamal (a handsome and dignified Alexander Siddig), whom she marries once she's released. Since Nadia is incapable of loving herself, she couldn't possibly love Jamal either, but their brief and doomed union does result in the birth of a little girl.
That would be Miral, played by a distractingly miscast Freida Pinto, star of the Oscar-winning "Slumdog Millionaire." Beyond the fact that it seems odd to have an Indian actress star as a Palestinian woman in a film that is all about culture and identity, Pinto (in her mid-20s) looks too old to play a 16-year-old. And while she's meant to be just some regular girl — her name comes from a red flower you'd see growing along the side of the road, there are a million of them, we're told — the former model is too startlingly beautiful to ever be ordinary.
Miral is supposed to be the heart of the film, the one who provides perspective on all the other characters. But she doesn't show up until about halfway through, and then because she's uncertain of herself as she evolves in her personality and ideology, it leaves us feeling disconnected, as well.
A student at Hind's school in the late 1980s, Miral is torn between her conservative father and the sexy and dangerous PLO member (Omar Metwally) who's filling her head with ideas of violence and rebellion. Schnabel also tries to illustrate this tumultuous time with brief glimpses of actual footage from the Intifada; rather than complementing the film, though, these images feel jarring and out of place in what is supposed to be such a personal story.
Schnabel's attempt at depicting this longtime, bloody friction from the Palestinian point of view — and with a conciliatory tone — is admirable; if only it had been more compelling.
"Miral," a Weinstein Co. release, is rated PG-13 for thematic material, and some violent content including a sexual assault. Running time: 114 minutes. Two stars out of four.
Motion Picture Association of America rating definitions:
G — General audiences. All ages admitted.
PG — Parental guidance suggested. Some material may not be suitable for children.
PG-13 — Special parental guidance strongly suggested for children under 13. Some material may be inappropriate for young children.
R — Restricted. Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian.
NC-17 — No one under 17 admitted.