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Miral DVD Review

Miral (2011) movie poster Miral

US Theatrical Release: March 25, 2011 / Running Time: 106 Minutes / Rating: PG-13 / Songs List

Director: Julian Schnabel / Writer: Rula Jebreal (book & screenplay)

Cast: Hiam Abbass (Hind Husseini), Freida Pinto (Miral), Yasmine Al Massri (Nadia), Ruba Blal (Fatima), Alexander Siddig (Jamal), Omar Metwally (Hani), Stella Schnabel (Lisa), Willem Dafoe (Colonel Eddie Smith), Vanessa Redgrave (Bertha Spafford), Doraid Liddawi (Samir), Yolanda El-Karam (Young Miral), Rawda (Aunt Tamam), Shredy Jabarin (Ali), Makram J. Khoury (Governor Khatib), Juliano Merr Khamis (Sheikh Saabah), Frida Elraheb (Hadil), Jawhara Baker (Samar Hilal)

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The Israeli-Palestinian conflict has been going on for a very long time and no movie is going to resolve it. What a movie can do is raise awareness of the issue and put a human face on it. Julian Schnabel's Miral looks to do that, not just with any human face, but the pretty visage of Indian actress Freida Pinto. "IS this the FACE of a Terrorist?" asks the tagline. No, that is the face of the girl from Slumdog Millionaire.

The kneejerk reaction of many Americans to the phrase "Israeli-Palestinian" is to zone out and think about something else. I'm as guilty of that as anyone. The dispute is older than all of us
and it seems awfully presumptuous of anyone to even for a second posit a resolution that will at last satisfy both parties. Think of how many people have tried to find such a thing and essentially failed. Could whoever figures it out also please cure cancer, end hunger, and establish world peace while they're at it? Still, it can't hurt to study, dissect, and try to understand the saga of unrest.

And yet, in America at least, filmmakers have largely left the subject untouched. The pitiful Wikipedia category "Films about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict" consists of just thirty titles, a mere two of which you are certain to have heard of: Steven Spielberg's Munich and, the one unlikely movie that sprung to mind while trying to make my own mental list, Adam Sandler's You Don't Mess with the Zohan. The thin page also includes the Oscar-nominated 2008 Israeli animated documentary Waltz with Bashir and Miral, which I will now tell you about.

Schnabel's narrative follow-up to his deservedly celebrated French language drama The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, Miral is based on a true story, which Palestinian journalist Rula Jebreal adapts from her concurrently-published autobiographical novel of the same name. Pinto plays the title character, who doesn't show up until about forty minutes (and forty years) in.

Hind Husseini (Hiam Abbass) cannot turn her head at the sight of children orphaned by the Deir Yassin massacre. Serving six months for a nose punch, Nadia (Yasmine Al Massri) is comforted by her nurse cellmate Fatima (Ruba Blal), who's doing three life sentences for a botched terrorism attempt.

The film opens on Christmas 1947 at a party where affluent Palestinian woman Hind Husseini (Hiam Abbass, best known to Western viewers from The Visitor, though she also appeared briefly in Munich) interacts genially with everyone from the English hostess (a briefly seen Vanessa Redgrave) to an American soldier (slightly less brief Willem Dafoe). Life outside that luxurious gathering isn't so jovial and peaceful. On her way to work the following spring, Hind is met by dozens of sobbing, traumatized young children, who have been orphaned in the Deir Yassin massacre. She takes action to see that they are cared for, and soon sets up an orphanage/school.

Twenty or so years later, Miral's future mother Nadia (Yasmine Al Massri), a runaway rape victim turned belly dancer, winds up in prison after hitting a fellow bus rider who calls her an "Arab whore." Throw a punch at a stranger on a bus in the U.S. in either the 1970s or now, and you could very well earn a ticket, a summons, and a fine. Nadia, though, gets six months of jail time, where her nurse cellmate Fatima (Ruba Blal) shares her story, explaining how she is serving three life situations for a failed movie theater bombing attempt.

Nadia is never the same. Miral is born in 1973 and her unreliable, alcoholic mother dies a few years later. Miral's father (Alexander Siddig) brings her to Hind's orphanage, which Miral resists, but comes to appreciate as a teenager (Pinto assumes the character at age 14), as she develops a taste for political activism while teaching at a refugee camp. Her activities earn notice from authorities and vehement discouragement from her father. After the authorities identify her in a picture and connect her to a dangerous organization, there's some jail time and torture for her.

Miral is released and stays in contact with those involved in the uprising who have strong feelings and grand ideas for relieving the tension that divides the Jews and Palestinians. She even gets an opportunity to know an Israeli in Lisa (Schnabel's daughter Stella), her cousin's easygoing girlfriend, who schools her on contemporary rock bands The Who and The Rolling Stones.

On a bus ride, Miral (Freida Pinto) has her intentions questioned and her ID examined. Miral's protective father (Alexander Siddig) discourages her from doing anything that could get her into trouble.

Miral doesn't have a very rousing destination or anything that really elevates it beyond one Palestinian woman's lineage and experience. That is sort of the point. Average citizens' stories are not told and the conflict that shapes their existence is too endless and stagnant to regularly elicit headlines and prominent coverage on the nightly news. That Schnabel, a Jewish American, tries to embody the historical conflict at large in just one of the countless true stories (his girlfriend's, no less) is both admirably ambitious and pretentiously self-important.
Those who are most passionate about and affected by the Middle East turmoil might be offended by its somewhat simplistic and largely one-sided depiction here. Meanwhile, those who tune out the subject might benefit from a viewing but are unlikely to ever encounter the film, should they not be sold on the image of Ms. Pinto as a solemn schoolgirl.

Perhaps that explains the film's icy reception. Critics, most of whom I'll assume have greater interest in, a better understanding of, and a firmer position on Israel-Palestine than me, gave it low marks, with nineteen "top" and sixty overall reviewers both yielding a measly 16% on Rotten Tomatoes' oft-cited Tomatometer, a score largely unheard of for independent art house fare such as this French-Israeli-Italian-Indian co-production. It's none too encouraging that the DVD cover quotes as many filmmaker friends (director Bernardo Bertolucci and Schnabel's Before Night Falls star Javier Bardem) as published reviews. The rotten consensus, however, seems to overstate Miral's cinematic shortcomings. Politically, the film may be troubling in its portrayals. The issue is far too removed for me to even pretend I can contest the history as Jebreal and Schnabel relay it.

Judging it as a film and a piece of storytelling, I thought Miral was quite all right. Pinto (who, despite her distant nationality, is a genuine doppelganger for Jebreal) gives a nice effort, as do those she shares the screen with, especially Abbass (whose age, like Pinto's, is occasionally called into question). The film never greatly resonates in its discussions of political involvement and participation, but it holds one's attention as it tackles such ideas from varying viewpoints. And you'd have to be pretty jaded not to be affected by the extremes of the legal system, manifesting in discomforting flagellation and public urination. If Schnabel wanted to make a great epic Israeli-Palestinian drama that riled people up and made them take action, he's fallen quite a bit short of the mark. But I don't see those goals in this. I see a man intrigued by the conflict (through the little piece of it now in his life), who has heard about it, researched it, and wants to share his thoughts to get people thinking and talking about the subject.

On that front, the director also came up short. I mean, sure, I'm thinking and talking about it and you are presumably thinking and reading about it. But we're in the minority. If we're to assume that Box Office Mojo's average domestic ticket price of $7.86 doesn't stay far from worldwide averages, then Miral sold about 100,000 movie tickets around the globe. Subtract multiple viewings from the fervent and the obsessive-compulsive and it's safe to say that the film has reached fewer people than any director would like. The use of provocative poster art (a Star of David made from barbed wire drawn over Pinto's eye, a tagline beginning with "The movie they tried to stop is coming", a flower-spouting gun joined by "Make Films, Not War") could only raise so much interest. Likewise, The Weinstein Company's third consecutive MPAA ratings appeal triumph -- which managed to get the movie re-rated from R to PG-13 without editing any content -- seems as in vain as the studio's preceding mission to give the world a family-friendly PG-13 The King's Speech. Was the underage audience at all interested? Would any moviegoer have stayed away from an R rating? I gather the answer to both questions is "no" and, as is, Miral stands as a tame PG-13 whose "thematic material" is mostly historical footage of the region.

Miral becomes the fourth Weinstein Company film in as many months released to home video by Anchor Bay Entertainment, who has made it available on both DVD and Blu-ray this week.

Miral DVD cover art -- click to buy from Amazon.com DVD Details

2.35:1 Anamorphic Widescreen
Dolby Digital 5.1 (English)
Subtitles: English for Hearing Impaired, Spanish
Not Closed Captioned; Extras Subtitled in English
Release Date: July 12, 2011
Single-sided, dual-layered disc (DVD-9)
Suggested Retail Price: $29.98
Black Keepcase in Cardboard Slipcover
Also available on Blu-ray ($39.98 SRP) and on Amazon Instant Video

VIDEO and AUDIO

Miral looks nice in the DVD's 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen presentation. Schnabel is known for his visual imagination and though this film lends less to that than his previous one, there are still plenty of strong and interesting compositions (like a maintained close-up of Nadia's sweaty dancing navel, capturing Hind in glimpses between the backs of her students' heads, or potently bottling magic hour sunlight) that the transfer allows you to appreciate fully. The Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack makes an ever bigger splash, with plenty of welcome atmosphere from all over adding dramatic value. One small but important note; though most of the film is in English, some of it is not and the needed subtitles were not activated by default for me on my first viewing.

This brief deleted scene, in which Hind (Him Abbass) considers leaving the region, presumably has yet to be color-timed. Did you think this was Freida Pinto? Think again. It's Rula Jebreal, the author and screenwriter on whom Miral is based.

BONUS FEATURES, MENUS and PACKAGING

Extras begin with an audio commentary by director Julian Schnabel and producer Jon Kilik. Schnabel does most of the talking, only coaxing a few thoughts from Kilik. It's odd that Rula Jebreal isn't here. Surely the writer on whose life the film is based would have an interesting perspective to share; perhaps she wasn't comfortable with that. Nevertheless, Schnabel leads a fascinating track. He touches upon basic choices: shooting primarily in the region's universal language of English and in real locations, with support from Husseini's relatives.
He shares his thoughts on the subject and defends the film's point of view and selective history, citing The Battle of Algiers as an inspiration. He adds significance to the actors' appearances (touching on Vanessa Redgrave's controversial Oscar acceptance speech, actor Juliano Merr Khamis' recent assassination, and Ruba Blal's pregnancy), addresses some of the negative reviews, and reveals resistance faced (one Israeli location request denial compared the movie to Mein Kampf). The track closes with an enthusiastic voice mail from Carl Reiner, complete with his phone number. While I've come to find that most commentaries offer less than their time demands require, this informative listen is an exception.

Three deleted scenes (3:57) are offered sans commentary or intro. They depict an alternate opening starting with funeral preparations, a black and white sequence set in 1948, and an alternate ending using period footage.

"The Making of Miral" (14:04) is a general featurette. It is a little heavy on movie clips, but gathers good remarks on production and the story from Schnabel, Jebreal, Pinto, and Hiam Abbass. Its handful of B-roll shots are oddly stretched from 4:3 to 16:9.

In his studio tour, director and artist Julian Schnabel shows more than enough chest as he explains the inspiration for these two contrasting people he painted one atop the other again and again. This may look like an early '90s indie film, but in fact it is just Schnabel, Jebreal, and others answering questions at the Chicago Palestine Film Festival.

"Julian Schnabel Studio Tour" (7:22) is what it sounds like, but it is the director's art studio we're shown. It's exactly what you'd expect from slob/artiste Schnabel, who discusses his paintings with his shirt largely unbuttoned and eventually becomes pompous storyteller regarding his world travels,
his aversion to offices, and the importance of music in Miral.

The extras conclude with a grainy black and white Filmmaker Q & A session (31:48) shot at this year's Chicago Palestine Film Festival. It features Schnabel, Jebreal, and a trio of local Jewish and Arab authorities: Rabbi Brant Rosen, Ali Abunimah, Yali Amit. Schnabel repeats some of the stories from the commentary and addresses rather arrogantly the film's chilly critical reaction. The opinions of the outside sources, which receive the second half of this, do add some interest.

The disc opens with trailers for preceding Weinstein/Anchor Bay pairings The King's Speech, Blue Valentine, and The Company Men. Miral's own trailer is unfortunately missing.

The scored main menu plays a standard montage of clips bordered by a blur effect on the sides and torn strips of paper at top and bottom. There uncut black Eco-Box keepcase is topped by a subtly textured cardboard slipcover and joined by no inserts.

Is this the face of a terrorist? Nope, it's still just Freida Pinto.

CLOSING THOUGHTS

While I didn't enjoy Miral to the extent that Julian Schnabel would like, I'm having trouble understanding how cinematically it deserved the scathing reviews it received. The resentment must stem from the subject matter, a hot and politically polarizing issue that the film isn't interested in covering from all angles. The movie fares just fine telling its story from its one viewpoint. It's well-acted and competently composed. If it's unable to move to a great degree, it at least should get a small fraction of the world devoting some welcome thought to the Israeli-Palestinian situation.

The problem is you either have opinions on the conflict or don't. If you do, the movie will either echo your position or trouble you. If you don't, you probably won't have any interest in seeing the movie. Really, the only way you can emerge satisfied, is if you see this in spite of your disinterest, perhaps out of an appreciation for the director or cast. That was my experience here, with the DVD's hearty slate of worthwhile special features a nice, unexpected bonus.

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Miral Songs: Ennio Morricone - "Pace Apparente"; Laurie Anderson - "Miral 1", "Flow", "Miral 2", "Miral 3"; Marcel Khalife - "Rita", "Taqasim"; Pete Townshend - "So Sad About Us"; Dinah Washington - "Smoke Gets in Your Eyes"; Le Trio Joubran - "Masar", "Safar", "L'Art D'Aimer - Shajan"; R.L. Burnside - "Rollin' Tumblin (Remix)"; A.R. Rahman - "Water", "Mumbai Theme Tune"; "Carol's Walk"; Laurie Anderson & Lou Reed - "Carbon"; Tom Waits - "Down There by the Train", Tom Waits - "Lost in the Harbour"

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Reviewed July 13, 2011.



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