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Savant Blu-ray Review

The Weinstein Company/Anchor Bay
2010 / Color / 2:35 widescreen / 106 112 min. / Street Date July 12, 2011 / 39.98
Starring Freida Pinto, Hiam Abbass, Alexander Siddig, Yasmine Al Massri, Vanessa Redgrave.
Eric Gautier
Film Editor Juliette Welfling
Written by Rula Jebreal from her novel
Produced by Jon Kulik
Directed by Julian Schnabel

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

From Julian Schnabel, the writer-director of The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, 2010's Miral is an attempt to tell the Palestinian side of the Mid-Eastern conflict in human terms. Any such project will have a difficult time in the U.S. movie market. Films about the Israeli experience have been and are still mainstream audience material. Shows presenting historical-emotional alternative viewpoints take the risk of being marginalized as "political". Casual reviewers tend to review pictures like Miral as political advocacy pieces first and entertainment second. Even in today's polarized climate, where sympathy for Israel's policies is no longer assumed, Palestinians have a much smaller presence in the cinematic mainstream.

A notable casting choice gained plenty of attention for Schnabel's film. It's no problem getting Vanessa Redgrave and Willem Dafoe to make brief appearances, but for his leading actress Schnabel signed Freida Pinto, the star of the recent Best Picture Oscar winner Slumdog Millionaire. The Indian beauty has no difficulty playing a young Palestinian.

Miral narrows its focus to the experience of several Palestinian women living under Israeli control, starting just before the establishment of the Jewish state. The script is selective with the bits of history it chooses to portray. At a Christmas party in 1947, Englishwoman Berta Spafford (Vanessa Redgrave) enjoys a tree donated by a local Palestinian. One of the attendees is the well-off Palestinian woman Hind Husseini (Hiam Abbass). When the Israelis use military force to subdue the center of Palestine, Hind finds dozens of Arab orphans huddled and hungry, hiding from the fighting. She takes them home, and with local help founds the Dar Al-Tifel Institute, which soon grows tenfold. Over the next fifty years Hind does her best to keep the Institute separate from the political upheavals in the streets. Her aim is to produce a flow of educated young Palestinians to carry the nation forward.

The film takes a highly subjective stance, jumping between times of major civil strife (the 6-Day War, the First Intifada) as it follows the troubled stories of several ill-fated Palestinian women. Nadia (Yasmine Al Massri) tears free of an abusive home situation -- her father rapes her -- and works as a belly dancer. She's given a six-month prison sentence for attacking an Israeli woman who calls her a whore in public. In jail, Nadia's cellmate is serving several life sentences for attempting to bomb a movie theater (playing Roman Polanski's Repulsion). The bomber asks her brother Jamal (Alexander Siddig) to marry Nadia upon her release. Jamal falls in love with Nadia's tiny daughter Miral, who accepts him as her birth father. But Nadia is too emotionally disturbed to carry on. When she's gone Jamal enrolls Miral in Hind Husseini's institute. Many years later, Miral (Freida Pinto) rejects Hind's admonishments to remain clear of political activity, and becomes involved with a violent activist. The naïve Miral is captured by the Israeli Defense force and tortured, but doesn't talk about her associates.

Miral's advertising tagline pretty much says it all: "Is this the face of a terrorist?" The image of the historical Arab-Israeli conflict presented in the movie is that the Palestinians were robbed of their homeland and are systematically persecuted by the Israeli occupiers, who keep no bargains and allow settlers to homestead more and more Palestinian land. The Arabs have few rights in what is supposed to be their country, while the Israelis allow any foreign Jew to immigrate and assume full citizenship rights. A large section of Israeli society considers the Palestinians contemptible vermin; the IDF behave like Nazi thugs. Miral is interrogated in a humiliating fashion, and then hung by her hands and beaten by a burly female torturer.

Miral doesn't bother to court an opposition audience. Director Schnabel repeats images from The Battle of Algiers, without that film's endistancing semi-docu effect or commitment to equal-time barbarities. A woman is shown delivering a terror bomb in a gesture of frustration: outraged Palestinians are striking back in any way they can. Every violent incident in the show is an Israeli strike against unarmed Palestinians, often women & children and shown from the point of view of an innocent schoolgirl. The pro- Israeli media can stomp on the film with the rational-sounding argument that presenting an emotional argument with no historical context is a fraud. There is no coverage of the Israeli point of view, and no reasonable Israeli characters. Beyond the failed bombing, we see almost no Palestinian-on-Israeli violence, which reportedly provoked much of the IDF brutality on view.  1

On the other hand, Julian Schnabel can respond that a film like Miral is sorely needed in an international film culture dominated by a strong pro-Israeli bias. And since when is it the responsibility of a movie to "present both sides of a political argument?" See Raid on Entebbe and Munich. News programs certainly don't bother with equal coverage any more. Schnable could very well answer the fairness objection with a curt, Go make your own damn movie.

As a viewing experience Miral is indeed powerful; we really care abou these people. Schabel skates through the years, sometimes losing us for a moment or two. I didn't immediately catch whose child Miral was supposed to be, and where exactly she came from. We admire Hind Husseini and Jamal as principled, loving people. The performances are fine all around, and the aging-makeup jobs on actors Hiam Abbass and Alexander Siddig are extremely good. The film has only a few funny moments. To make her son's Israeli girlfriend feel unwelcome, a Palestinian mother dresses up in ultra-traditional garb and pretends she can only speak Arabic.

Miral is adapted from screenwriter Rula Jebreal's autobiographical novel, with the leading character Miral more or less representing Ms. Jebreal. The final third of the film charts Miral's contacts with violent activism. The key moment is when she refuses the advice of her beloved teacher Hind Husseini, shouting that the old woman doesn't understand why she must resist the Israelis. The inexperienced Miral is confused by her love for a doomed Palestinian resistance activist. The story clearly shows that Miral is dead wrong to have anything to do with violent activism. The violent rebels are dangerously unstable. They doubt Miral's claim that she didn't talk, even though she withstood a set of hideous scars on her back. The boyfriend becomes a hunted man by both the IDF and his own comrades. The wise Hind Husseini sees all this violence as unproductive and wasteful, and wants Miral to survive intact to carry the culture of her nation beyond these troubled times. Despite its no-terrorism message, Miral leaves us with the distinct feeling that the Israeli oppression is intolerable.

I found the movie and its characters fascinating. We need as many reminders as possible that the vast majority of humans live in oppressed conditions, dreaming of simple freedoms we take for granted or squander. The final reminder in the film can't be ignored: a 1994 Oslo Accord granted the Palestinians a path to self-rule. It was signed and adopted, but the agreement "has yet to be implemented."

The Weinstein Company / Anchor Bay's Blu-ray of Miral is a beautiful widescreen HD encoding of this daring but critically unloved film, which apparently did not have the correct political inclination for 2010. The music uses a few pop tunes as well as an Ennio Morricone theme to establish period, but Laurie Anderson contributes most of the new cues. The film is mostly spoken in English, but with plenty of Hebrew and Arabic as well. Interestingly, the film establishes that Miral has been raised apart from the world of radio, TV and rock 'n' roll. She has no knowledge whatsoever of the media-driven pop culture so central to the lives of ordinary Israeli teenagers.

The show comes with a full helping of extras -- a director and producer commentary, a making-of docu, deleted scenes, and a Q&A session with the director. The disc packaging uses the image of "schoolgirl" Freida Pinto and her beautiful, serious stare, but doesn't bill her as the star.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, Miral Blu-ray rates:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Audio: 5.1 DTSHD-MA
Subtitles: English (but only for non-English dialogue), Spanish
Supplements: commentary, making-of featurette, deleted scenes, Q&A session.
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: July 14, 2011


1. This review from the Jerusalem Post stomps on Miral, but makes a number of balanced and reasoned observations about the film's subject matter and the good work of Hind Husseini.

DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2011 Glenn Erickson

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