Julian Schnabel's films sometimes have the effect of entering the claustrophobic experience of a character. His best works, Before Night Falls and The Diving Bell & the Butterfly, immediately plunge the viewer into harrowing dilemmas. Schnabel chose his latest film, Miral, after reading Ruth Jebreal's semi-autobiographical novel about her experiences growing up in Palestine. The film opens with the character of Hind (Hiam Abbass, the Palestinian actress who was memorable in The Visitor) who generously sets up a school for refugee children. Her story crosses with Nadia (Yasmine Al Massri), who escapes her abusive father, becomes an alcoholic, is imprisoned and eventually marries Jamal (Alexander Siddig). Nadia bears a child, Miral (the gorgeous Freida Pinto). After Nadia commits suicide, Jamal takes Miral to Hind's school. The latter conflicts of the film arise as Miral is soon torn between the activism of her peers, including her boyfriend Hani (Omar Metwally), and her education and guidance under Hind.
Schnabel says that "Miral is a single young girl among millions, but she is also the inheritor of all the pressures, anxieties and hopes that the Palestinian people have accumulated over four decades. Her story is not about the details of historical events, but what is felt within the body and heart." Schnabel's choices in making Miral a broken, very interior experience (shaky cam abounds; I preferred Eric Gautier's impeccable recent work on Wild Grass and Summer Hours) may frustrate the viewer. It's perhaps trite to compare a piece of art to a cultural situation, but the film does feel as if it is attempting to mimic discord and displacement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. This makes Miral a flawed, but fascinating work. In the midst of this disjointed narrative, the actors do their best to keep things whole. Hiram Abbass is burdened by portraying an elderly woman for much of the film. Pinto (showing more depth than she was able to portray in Slumdog Millionaire) has to endure some brutal scenes. Schnabel's choice of layering three narratives in the first half, and focusing in on Miral's character in the final, is definitely tricky. It isn't pulled off as gracefully as it could have been (the plot points often feel scattered; characters come and go, especially ones played by distractingly big stars like Willem Dafoe). The film is sometimes moving and may ignite some interesting commentary, especially since Palestinian life is seldom portrayed. ***