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Piece Plan

Julian Schnabel’s Miral, a sympathetic portrayal of four Palestinian women over nearly 50 years, is neither what its defenders claim nor what its detractors allege. It is a collection of fragments that ultimately doesn’t hold together.

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Frieda Pinto in Julian Schnabel’s Miral. (Jose Haro/The Weinstein Company)

The movie they tried to stop is coming to New York,” read an ad for Julian Schnabel’s Miral in last Sunday’s New York Times. Based on a memoir by Rula Jebreal, the gorgeous 37-year-old Palestinian journalist who is also the controversial artist’s current romantic partner, the film traces the stories of four Palestinian women from 1948 to the Oslo Accords of the early 1990s. But it is hardly as daring as the ad describes.

The “they” here appear to be the Anti-Defamation League, the American Jewish Committee, and others who protested Miral’s March 14 premiere at the UN General Assembly. The AJC released a statement complaining that the film “portrays Israel in a negative light” and fails to provide context for the Israeli brutality shown.

Schnabel has responded to such allegations by saying it is not the responsibility of the artist to portray both sides. And here he is right. A film based on a memoir—even a political one—is not journalism. But Schnabel has also said that Miral will advance the conversation about Israel, will make American Jews listen to Palestinians, and here he is wrong.

Miral is ultimately neither what its defenders claim nor what its detractors allege. The movie offers a few stunning glimpses into its heroines’ interior lives, but as a defense of the Palestinian cause—as an argument or even a plea—it fails utterly.

The match of artist and subject is seriously off kilter. What Schnabel’s previous films do best is present luminous, pictorial fragments—snapshots into how a suffering person sees. These humane films have shown the conflict between the artist’s subjective point of view and everyday brutal reality, sometimes drawing from Greek tragedy, sometimes from opera, and sometimes from abstract expressionism.

Take The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, which is seen entirely through the eyes of Jean-Dominique Bauby, the newly paralyzed French editor of Elle magazine. The audience understands the world in half blinks, spasms, and tics, as Bauby now does. Here Schnabel manages to make the familiar strange.

All of Schnabel’s previous films succeeded to the extent that they did because they harness highly subjective moments of suffering to one character, who in turn drives the story. In Miral, the suffering is spread among four characters in four different eras, and none is highly individuated.

And none of them are artists. As filmic subjects, Schnabel is mostly drawn to men driven to make art as a way of speaking. Bauby, the magazine editor, must relearn to see and talk as best he can; Basquiat, the outsider artist, creates paintings suggesting an authentic imagination that the art world glitterati envies and ultimately tries to destroy; Reinaldo Arenas, a gay Cuban poet who grew up in the Amazon, uses language to chisel away at a socialist world hostile to his sexual identity.

Although Schnabel wants to cast the Palestinian women in Miral in the same romantic light, the women—and it is important that they are women, since his earlier films have all focused on tragic men—are not artists and thus are not compelling as heroines. Also, while Schnabel’s men meet the fate of all romantic heroes—death—Miral ends with flight and the prospect of redemption. In the language of pop psychology, she empowers herself. While this may make a good segment on Oprah, it doesn’t make for a good movie.

Miral‘s best moments show how the besieged Palestinian quartet see and how they protect themselves from seeing the terrible wrongs committed against them. At these moments, it seemed to me that Schnabel was aiming to treat the women’s stories as though they were pieces of Moroccan zellij, the mosaic tilework that forms abstract patterns on the walls of mosques and other buildings in the Maghreb, but while those tiles are patterned to suggest some greater meaning, Miral is not.

A related problem is casting. While Schnabel’s previous films were brilliantly cast—Jeffrey Wright as Basquiat and Javier Bardem as Reinaldo Arenas were sublime—here he has stumbled. I’m not talking about choosing Freida Pinto as Miral instead of a Palestinian actress, which some critics have attacked him for. No, Schnabel’s sin here comes in mixing international stars that support the Palestinian cause with Arab actors. No sooner does Miral begin than Vanessa Redgrave and Willem Dafoe pop into the frame in cameo roles as American supporters of Hind Husseini, the Arab Mother Teresa. They dance around a Christmas tree, celebrating the founding of an orphanage. Redgrave, who is wearing a wreath on her head, looks particularly smug, and thankfully she quickly disappears.

Schnabel jumps quickly from the holiday party to archival footage of the bombing of Palestinian villages in 1948 to Husseini’s efforts to rescue children. He has defended this jerky approach—some critics have called it episodic—to his subject by saying “the fragment embodies the whole.” But using fragments cannot cover up a real problem with the story: It is extremely difficult to sustain interest in a saint, Arab or otherwise.

The film drags as Husseini struggles to keep the orphanage alive and as Schnabel shows us archival footage from the Six Day War. There is a flash of intrigue when Willem Dafoe reappears and hints at what might have been.

“What you’re doing is incredible,” Defoe says, smiling as they walk through the hills.

“This was a village,” Husseini says.

Instead of kissing, it’s back to Dafoe’s wooden dialogue:

“Keep me informed.” He exits.

It is not until Miral’s mother, Nadia (Yasmine al Massri), appears that Schnabel finds the movie’s first arresting image: a metal pole moving up and down in the middle of the frame. It is a classic, abstract Schabelesque moment. It is also a sleight of hand. The pole is part of an iron bed that Nadia sees as she is being raped as a young girl.

From here, Schnabel leaps forward to grown-up Nadia’s undulating belly as she dances in a sleazy night club. The lushness of her body and the shimmering gold coins on her costume contrast with the veil covering her face.

After Nadia winds up in jail, she meets Miral’s third heroine, Fatima (Ruba Bial), a nurse who plants a bomb in a movie theater during Roman Polanski’s Repulsion. This scene has both the best wildness that Schnabel is capable of and shows his somewhat surprising sensitivity to comedy.

“It’s OK, I haven’t seen it,” Fatima says when the ticket booth guy asks her why she is late.

While Catherine Deneuve is being raped onscreen, Fatima tucks a bomb under the seat. The camera zips frantically from one face to another in the audience. Later you learn, almost as an afterthought, that the bomb didn’t go off.

Another evocative moment comes when Nadia, an alcoholic, drowns herself, and Schnabel gives us the sound of the sea as it roars up around her.

When we finally meet Nadia’s daughter, the film’s title character, it is 1987, the first intifada is underway, and Miral is 16. Along with some girls who are students at the orphanage, she goes to a refugee camp to teach grammar to the stone-throwing boys.

In general, the landscape is more stirring than the politics. Hind Husseini and Miral argue about one-state and two-state solutions as if they were reading from position papers at a Washington think tank.

And the moments where the movie eavesdrops on what Palestinians think about the Jewish settlers are disappointingly predictable: “They think … they have more rights than any Palestinian.”

Some have argued that the scene when the police torture Miral unfairly shows only one side of the conflict. This misses the point. The most striking moments in this sequence, as usual, are not the ones that are supposed to have a political punch—Miral raising her shirt in court to show the judge the welts on her back. They are when she is recovering afterward, lying in bed, watching the steamers drift by through her window, looking like nothing as much as boats in a Renoir landscape.

At the time of the Oslo Accords, Miral, who has decided she wants to be a journalist, leaves Israel. The final shots, of Husseini’s funeral to a Tom Waits soundtrack, end the film on an irrelevant note, as the movie has not convinced the audience of her importance.

It wasn’t an ending that shed any light on street-side bombs, Israeli retaliations, or the settlers slaughtered earlier this month. The only thing the film convinced me of is that Schnabel should go back to painting, which—as it happens—is what he has said he is going to do.

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Forest says:

In short it’s another film that demonizes Israel and presents a distorted picture. Call it Art, call it a movie it is a piece of propaganda. The intellectuals in NY can argue about it as much as they want, the fact is that this demonization leads directly to the death of Jews.

Richard Diamond says:

I read an interview with Julian Schnabel in the NY Times – I think the best phrase to describe him is Kapo. If you define the world as the Upper West of NY he is a big deal. But outside of the Fairway market, he’s doesn’t matter. The less said about his film the better. The only positive is that it will probably lose the movie’s investors all of their money.

The pictures in the Times were nauseating. Schnabel with his much younger beautiful wife and the honorable Israel basher Vanessa Redgrave and then Schnabel with his much younger, beautiful ex-wife and wife all together. Reminds me of Picasso – except I don’t believe he was an anti-semite.

You said it – a capo. Jews are proficient in so many things they’re even among the world’s best anti-semites.

He’s not even a very good artist.

If art is art, how come we never get a film that displays, even minimally, the heroism and dedication and self-sacrifice of those who fought for Israel’s independence not from the mainstream? Those who mounted the gallows? Those who tried to save Jews of Europe by breaking the White paper policy of Gt. Britain (And not have Paul Newman, aka Hagana, plot and act the Acre Prison break when it was the Irgun)? Why couldn’t Eli Weisel’s The Dawn be scripted? Why couldn’t The Deed become a film? What was holding back the investors, the producers, the directors, the scriptwriters? Even Jabotinsky managed to sneak onto the silver screen via Victor Mature’s Samason. Is it art or politics?

Ranen says:

The shrill and censorious responses on this page suggest that we need even more, not less, representations of Palestine and Palestinian history. But hopefully that will emerge from Palestinians themselves. A great recent example is Elia Suleiman’s terrific film *The Time that Remains.*

Geoff says:

Basically Schnabel made this film so he could tap some hot Palestinian ass. A real mensch that guy.

There are several serious substantive errors in this piece, for example: “They dance around a Christmas tree, celebrating the founding of an orphanage.” They dance around a Christmas tree because it’s Christmas 1947 & they’re at a Christmas Party. The founding of the orphanage happens later.

I am especially hard-pressed to understand what this means: “…it is important that they are women…not artists and thus are not compelling as heroines.” I thought Hiam Abbass as “Hind Husseini” was brilliant. Note that Abbass, who starred in LEMON TREE, is the only Palestinian actress ever to win an Ophir Award in the Best Actress category from the Israel Film Academy.

I am a committed Zionist and a pasionate devote of Israeli cinema. I saw this film yesterday at a critics screening & it thought it was wonderful.

Bottom line: I urge you all to see this film for yourself & with your own eyes before commenting further.

It is to bad that the reviews, and the responses, need to spend time on his beautiful wife or x-wife or companion. What has that got to do with the film – which does make some points that are worth discussiong?
It shows a lack of character.

Nothing to fret over – as it unlikely to be viewed by anyone other than the regular group of “useful idiots.”

Alter says:

Shocking! A film that doesn’t show Israel in a favorable light is not Oscar material. I guess movies like In Search of Private Ryan where, in a sea of crosses at the U.S. Normandy burial ground, the camera, in the opening scene, focuses on a lonely Star of David, is good movie making.

This is an unfortunately pedantic review. I enjoyed the film very much, and my years in the IDF definitely helped me get through the scenes of abusive Israeli soldiers. When Americans wake up and stop feeling like Israelis are the representation of their eternal victimhood, they will realize that Julian Schnabel is a new kind of American Jewish artist, one who grapples, in fragments, with the terrible reality that Israelis have their own other, and are bent on subduing them for the time being. Kol haKavod, Schnabel.

babawawa says:

Alter, the lone Star of David in that shot was in homage to the lone Jew in the unit that died. Sounds like you saw the film but missed that part. Interesting. Doesn’t sound like this movie is Oscar material anyway, just a little present to Schnabel’s Eva Braun. Yes, war is hell, Eli, but if there was no IDF, the movie would have a different ending, don’t you think? Whatever the “other” is, may it be subdued forever. Frankly, the IDF is an instrument in the hand of G-d, Who’s decided your friends don’t succeed. Take your issues up with Him.

Chana Batya says:

If you don’t like Schnabel’s movie or story, make your own. The answer to speech you don’t like is more speech. See it, don’t see it, whatever, but it’s his right to make whatever art he wants. It’s your right not to buy it. If you think it’s propaganda, counter with your own. Let’s move on and remember that this is America, which like Israel, and unlike most other countries in the Middle East, has freedom of expression. Let’s hope that all the developing democracies in the Middle East will remember to allow freedom for unpopular and/or minority views.

Gato says:

A non-Israel-related correction: Reinaldo Arenas didn’t grow up in the Amazon (never went there at all, I believe). He grew up in Cuba, then emigrated to the U.S., where he died. Cuba is a tropical place, but it’s not the Amazon.

Anna says:

I also found this article disturbing in the way that it states that women are unworthy of being movie heroines–“…it is important that they are women…not artists and thus are not compelling as heroines.” It also implies that the movie was made not because the topic is worthwhile but because “the controversial artist’s current romantic partner” is a “gorgeous 37-year-old Palestinian journalist.” Overall, the whole tone is petty and reactionary. I felt like I learned more about Rachel Shteir’s beliefs than the movie.

Bryna Weiss says:

Many interesting comments but none that addresses the crux of the arguement. Good, bad or indifferent, this film can be shown in whatever film houses want to show it. The complaint is, the clearly political film, supporting one side of the conflict, does NOT BELONG AT THE WORLD BODY- THE UN. But then this is a body whose so-called human rights committee (most of whose members represent some of the most repressive and hateful societies in the World; i.e. Libya, today passed a resolution against Israel’s occupation of the Golan Heights- a territory they won in a war against them by Syria, who today is shooting down it’s own people in a massacre.

Chana Batya said it,so I don’t have to…

JCarpenter says:

Scott Simon’s conversation with Schnabel on NPR Sat. a.m. convinced me to see the film.

Beatrix says:

What the author seems to be saying is that in this case Scnabel used women when his protagonists are usually men, and ordinary women, when his protagonists are usually artists. I don’t think she was trying to insult women.

As Bryna Weiss says in her post, the movie is significant, not because of its artistic merit, but because the UN used it as an anti-Israeli, pro-Palestinian propaganda piece.

All these Hollywood and European Jewish geniuses renowned for their brilliant works of art, and not one can come up with an inspiring pro-Israeli film?

This is a redux of WW2 when millions of Jews were being slaughtered in Europe, while America kept her gates closed. Hollywood was run by Jews, and not one American film dealt with the tragedy happening to the Jews in Europe. No one in Hollywood tried to open America’s hearts to the Jews. MGM, however, did give us a pedestrian movie called “Mrs. Miniver” that threw American support irremediably behind the British.

Raymond in DC says:

Most of us are familiar with Hillel’s famous maxim from Pirkei Avot – “If I am not for myself, who will be for me; and if I am for myself only what am I?” So how is it that the Palestinians can be so affirming of themselves, their narrative, their “suffering”, while the Jews do the same … also on behalf of the Palestinians? The Palestinians are hardly in need of people telling their story. They’ve got the UN, European states, the current US administration, the leftists so dominant in media, the universities and the arts. Where are the Palestinians looking to examine the story of *their* antagonists? No, they spend their time denying Jewish history, the Jewish attachment to the land and Jerusalem, even the Holocaust.

Medad asks, “how come we never get a film that displays, even minimally, the heroism and dedication and self-sacrifice of those who fought for Israel’s independence not from the mainstream?” The fact is Israel hasn’t gotten good play in film since the 1970s in the aftermath of the Entebbe raid. Since then it’s, at best, moral equivalence (e.g. “Munich”). Even Israeli films often reflect a country, in Olmert’s words, that is “tired of war, tired of winning”, one wrestling with their “original sin”. Why do we get a “Lebanon” with soldiers doing everything wrong and crying for their mothers, and not a “Raid on the Sun” about the attack on the Iraqi nuclear site – real hero stuff?

Like JCarpenter, I too heard Simon’s interview with Schnabel on NPR. But it didn’t convince me to see it.

I have nothing against pro Palestinian films – some of them are quite good, this movie however was simply a terrible movie – a dull rambling piece of propoganda. Anyone who had spent anytime in Israel will instantly recognize that Schnabell portrayal of the country is so off the mark that its almost laughable Schnabell would have us believe that in Israel creepy Jewish men go to seedy bars to watch Arab women belly dance and proposition them, that on busses in Israel its not unusual for a Jewish woman to look over next to her and call another woman an “Arab Whore”, for an Israeli man to tell Miral “there is no such thing as a Palestinian, you are Israeli”, for the IDF to simply barge into a village, pick a house at random and scream, “this house is a security threat!” and bulldoze it. The only act of Palestinian violence whatsoever shown during the intifada is a bomb planted to knock out electricity in a settlement. And the characters dialogue consists of such statements as “why can any Jew from a russia our the US come steal out land?” And “why do we have to settle for 22% of Palestine instead of living in one state with equal rights for all?” After leaving the film I thought I had just sign something produced by the PLO film department, which might not have been so bad if it had any artistic value whatsoevet, which this film does not.

Dani ben Leb says:

For the record, the film panned at Venice this year. Many European news paper critics thought it one sided and badly made. These papers have no agenda and just wrote what they thought was a genuine critique. The only people talking about this film are some Jews and some Palestinians.
Nobody else has shown great interest, so I think that says it all. The fact that Schnabel is boning the writer is of more interest than the actual film.
I just hope for Schnabel’s sake that this film does not backfire on him. Continuous comparisons to Picasso are also to be held back PLEASE. Picasso was a genius, regardless who he was bedding. Schnabel is a New York celebrity who had his 15 minutes in the nineties. Were he not such a parrot nobody would care. Let us be honest here. What has this man done in the last ten years that validates all this news? He made film, so have hundreds of others……
And just because Israeli security took him aside upon his landing at Ben Gurion does not make him an authority on anything. The US is full of American Jews who came to Israel had a serious experience with the police and than turn peace activist. Oh boy. If it all were that easy……..

“The only act of Palestinian violence whatsoever shown during the intifada is a bomb planted to knock out electricity in a settlement.”

Sorry, H, but this is simply wrong. There are plenty of mob scenes to show imminent danger, there’s no implication that the targeted house was “random,” & pre-Intifada, there’s a long, extended, horrific scene of a bombing in a movie theatre. So readers, please don’t believe anyone who tells you that the Palestinians in MIRAL are presented as simple victims. Even the bus scene, which lasts mere seconds, is filled with complexity: watch it with OPEN eyes, & you’ll see that for yourselves.

The film is “news” because Schnabel has made Oscar-nominated films & Weinstein is a consistent Oscar-winner. If people who have NOT seen MIRAL continue to protest against it anyway, that will make it more controvertial & more people are likely to see it. If people see it & then they shrug (“Eh, no big deal. Just a movie.”), then that might actually kill it.

Good, bad, indifferent: please watch with OPEN eyes & make up your own mind after you see MIRAL.

shushan says:

ben Gurion started a transfer committee to rid israel of arabs. If israel would have followed ben gurions plan they would not have these problems


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Piece Plan

Julian Schnabel’s Miral, a sympathetic portrayal of four Palestinian women over nearly 50 years, is neither what its defenders claim nor what its detractors allege. It is a collection of fragments that ultimately doesn’t hold together.

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