Miral is a red flower. It grows on the side of the road in Israel.
It is also the name of the main character in Julian Schnabel’s provocative new movie based on the autobiographical novel of his partner, journalist Rula Jebreal.
“Miral” begins in the Dar Al-Tifel Institute in East Jerusalem, an orphanage and school for Palestinian children. The year is 1948, the birth of the state of Israel and the subsequent partition of Palestine.
When we meet Miral, she is an inquisitive five-year-old, daughter of a suicide victim, a woman broken by the indignity of life as a minority Palestinian in Jerusalem.
In time, Miral grows up to be Freida Pinto, who portrays the girl as a teen and young adult. She lives and learns under the guiding hand of Hind, the school’s founder, and Jamal, an imam who becomes her guardian.
The movie jumps ahead to the Six Day War of 1967, and the settlements that followed. Miral gets her first taste of the resistance in the form of Hani, an activist who inadvertently inspires her to take part in the anti-occupation movement.
“Miral” came out of the Toronto Film Festival last September, causing little stir with mixed reviews and a 112-minute running time. As it opens in theaters now, it clocks in at 98 minutes, and carries with it the baggage of a star-studded premiere last week at the United Nations.
There, the film met with protests from Israel’s delegation, the American Jewish Committee and the Anti-Defamation League over what even distributor Harvey Weinstein describes as the movie’s pro-Palestinian stance.
While Israeli soldiers are portrayed as antagonists in “Miral,” the new movie is no more anti-Israeli than “Gandhi” is anti-British. Schnabel attempts to tell the story of one woman’s struggle through chaotic times in an emotionally honest and historically responsible manner, and he succeeds.
Like his previous movies, including “Before Night Falls” and “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly,” “Miral” is a character piece. Also like his previous movies, the director succeeds in telling his story in compelling visual fashion, using camera and editing to reflect thematic and emotional truths about the material.
With “Miral,” Freida Pinto takes on her most challenging role since her break out in 2008’s “Slumdog Millionaire.” She carries most of the movie in a role that runs the emotional gamut, affording her the opportunity to show a range that was limited in “Slumdog” and more recently, Woody Allen’s “You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger.”
Pinto is helped by a strong supporting cast including international star Hiam Abbas (“The Visitor”) as Hind, Omar Metwally (“Munich”) as her lover, Hani, and Alexander Siddig (“Clash of the Titans”) as Jamal, her father.
Rula Jebreal unwisely adapts her own book having never written a screenplay before. As a result, “Miral” has glaring pacing problems.
The first act moves in fits and starts, narrative bouncing from character to character until finally, well into the film, Miral takes center stage. When she finally does, the story has her responding to events instead of driving them, often making her a less-than-compelling protagonist.
Jebreal busies herself with lots of set up but little pay off as Miral becomes more deeply embroiled in the events shaping the world around her.
As the conflict is ongoing, there can be no resolution to Schnabel’s movie so what we get instead is a funeral procession for Hind with Tom Waits growling “Lost in the Harbor” on the soundtrack.
The sequence is played as a grand finale, but although she was a profound influence on Miral, Hind is not the center of the film; and her funeral as finale is dramaturgically incorrect.
“Miral” is, however, the rarest of American movies in that it is a look at the Arab-Israeli conflict through the eyes of an Arab. Schnabel attempts to put a human face on those of have been demonized by western media. His movie aims to confront the truth and create change for the common good.
*** (out of four)