“I love the state of Israel,” the artist and filmmaker Julian Schnabel has been quoted as saying, though his latest film, Miral, feels more like a love-hate relationship between Schnabel and Israel. Minus the love.
Schnabel, the painter who received an Oscar nomination for directing The Diving Bell and the Butterfly left his wife a few years ago for the East Jerusalem–born Palestinian writer Rula Jebreal, whose memoir-ish novel is the source of his latest movie. Though politically engaged films, even heavily slanted ones, can be fun, Miral is a slog, a huffy, term-papery vision of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in which all evils are Israel’s fault and any minor moral missteps by the Palestinians (such as planting a bomb in a movie theater full of Jews) can easily be traced back to Israeli outrages.
Schnabel spuriously dedicates the picture to all “on both sides” who are dedicated to the cause of peace, but the film is suffused with false moral equivalence. The film, which the awards-hungry Weinstein Co. apparently (and absurdly) believed to be Oscar bait when it scheduled a release date for last December, was instead put off and will now be dumped without fanfare into a few underpopulated theaters on March 25.
A hint of what Schnabel, an American Jew whose mother was president of Hadassah in Brooklyn in 1948, is up to can be detected in the opening moments, in which notorious Yasser Arafat fan Vanessa Redgrave (“Zionism is a brutal, racist ideology,” she once said) has a cameo as a peace-loving soul in then–Mandate Palestine in 1947. As the film goes on, it approvingly shows a Palestinian nurse helping wounded soldiers disguise themselves as civilians and escape from a hospital in order to disappear back into the general population, as well as an attack in which a Palestinian places a bomb in a crowded movie theater (showing Polanski’s film Repulsion) and blows up a number of Jews. It is to Schnabel’s immense discredit that he cuts away from this carnage before it happens and proceeds directly to the sentencing of the bomber, a woman who is given two life sentences by an Israeli judge, plus a third for being disrespectful by not standing in the dark. The sense of injustice is thus neatly deflected from innocent lives being snuffed out to the alleged cruelty of a judge’s whim.
Freida Pinto, the Slumdog Millionaire beauty, plays the title character, and Jebreal figure, a young Palestinian woman who becomes increasingly radicalized by her terrorist boyfriend. She is merely shown getting thoroughly beaten with a rod by an Israeli woman cop for no reason and is innocently reading to Palestinian refugee children when the Israeli army bursts in and announces that it is razing the building, which it does in minutes. No reason or context is shown for this act; we are meant to see it, like the judge’s sentencing, as an act of random nonsensical Israeli viciousness.
“Every story told in my book and in this movie is true,” Jebreal announces in notes released to the media, adding the usual admission to the contrary when she says, “I merged different personalities and characters — but everything I have seen with my own eyes” because “there is no space for imagination in the Middle East.” That she could not possibly have seen everything in the film with her own eyes (it begins before she was born, and no character is present in every scene) proves there is a great deal of space for imaginary acts, and imaginary moral equivalence, in the Middle East.