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Review: Miral (2011)

Miral (2011)

Directed by: Julian Schnabel

Premise: Based on the novel by Rula Jebreal. The story of a young Palestinian woman (Freida Pinto) growing up in an orphanage amid the Israeli-Palestinian conflicts of the 1980s. 

What Works: The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is one of those topics that triggers irrationally emotional responses even from people who don’t have a personal stake in the issue and telling a story amid that conflict is inherently problematic. Nevertheless, the filmmakers of Miral attempt to tell a story of people in the midst of this conflict and the extent to which they succeed is impressive. At the risk of oversimplifying the issue, they do manage to distill the overall arc of events and make the situation palatable within the constraints of a feature film. What’s most important for a picture like this is for the filmmakers to cut through the talking points of the issue and get to the human experiences of people in a complicated and difficult situation. In that respect Miral succeeds, primarily through the title character’s relationships. Among the people in her life is Hind al-Husseini (Hiam Abbass), a historical figure who ran an orphanage for Palestinian refugees. Al-Husseini’s practicality and even temperedness is an effective counterpoint to Miral’s youthful passion. Other characters who figure prominently in Miral’s life include her father played by Alexander Siddig and a young PLO activist played by Omar Metwally. The depiction of Arab men in Western cinema is on the average pretty terrible but Siddig and Metwally’s characters are flawed men making difficult choices and it’s those flaws juxtaposed with hope and humanity that define their characters and put something at stake in the story. Miral also develops a friendship with a young Jewish woman (Stella Schnabel) and although the filmmakers don’t get quite as much mileage out of this relationship as they ought to, the interaction does complicate the us-versus-them binary that characterizes discussions of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It’s the characters’ humanity and the filmmakers’ resistance to the norms of this topic that makes Miral a notable film. 

What Doesn’t: Miral was subject to a lot of protest when it was released. Some of the outcry was inherent to the subject. Even the most nuanced and introspective portrayal of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict would get negative reviews from some quarters because the topic inherently elicits reactionary and polarized responses. Matters weren’t helped by a misleading marketing campaign in 2011 which set up expectations that Miral was a sympathetic portrayal of a terrorist. In truth, Miral is not a balanced or comprehensive portrayal of the issue but that’s not the function of narrative fiction. Feature films are not obligated to tell a balanced or complete story and it’s silly to expect a single motion picture to distill one of most complicated issues in geopolitics. Instead Miral does what a film like this should: dramatize the experiences of its characters, show a complex issue from their point of view, and share that perspective with the viewer. That said, Miral has its flaws. The story extends over several decades and the pacing of the narrative is sometimes clumsy. A lot of characters are introduced but some of the subplots are incomplete or don’t have a satisfying payoff. The film begins by telling the history of the regional conflict through the stories of some of the supporting characters and so the title character isn’t introduced until a half hour into the movie. The prologue is necessary but the narrative could have been set up more effectively. The weakest element of Miral is it’s ending which gives the impression that matters have reached a conclusion while acknowledging that little has changed since the events of this film. In that respect the movie feels incomplete.

DVD extras: Commentary track, deleted scenes, featurettes, interviews, and trailers.

Bottom Line:Miral is a flawed movie but it is deserving of some distinction simply based on the fact that its filmmakers approach a fraught topic with intelligence and sensitivity. There aren’t many movies about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and Miral takes the bold step of suggesting how it might be dealt with in feature films.

Episode: #363 (November 6, 2011); Revised #502 (August 3, 2014)