"Miral" is by no means the first film from a Palestinian point of view to show up in the United States, but it's likely to be the highest profile, both because of the critical reputation of director Julian Schnabel ("Before Night Falls," "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly") and because it's coming from The Weinstein Company, which has experience exploiting controversy.
"Miral" is based on an autobiographical novel by Rula Jebreal. If you want to worry about bias in the presentation, don't focus on the filmmaker's political opinions as much as the fact that Jebreal and Schnabel now live together. (Alternate title: "How My Girlfriend Got to Be So Complex and Deep and All-Around Fabulous.")
Chronological leaps and an episodic structure make things drag, particularly in the first half. We're more than a third of the way through the film before the title character herself (played briefly by Yolanda El Karam before Freida Pinto of "Slumdog Millionaire" takes over) shows up. The extended prologue is divided into three chapters, focusing on each of three women who molded the protagonist. First is Hind Husseini (Hiam Abbass), who creates a school for Palestinian children displaced during the battles to create Israel. Second is Nadia (Yasmine al Massri), Miral's mother; and third is Fatima (Ruba Blal), a terrorist. Fatima's nice-guy brother Jamal (Alexander Siddig) ends up raising Miral after Nadia's death.
The film may be intended (and defended) as presenting a Palestinian point of view, not the Palestinian point of view, universal and definitive. But the schematic nature of this extended prologue encourages the latter interpretation. That is, Miral represents the intersection of three sides of the Palestinians: Hind is peace, love, education, compromise; Fatima is righteous anger and violence; and Nadia is the quintessential victim. Those who suggest that the film is hopelessly one-sided are ignoring the fact that the worst of her victimizers is one of her own. (For what it's worth, in a token gesture later on there's also one Good Jew, played by the director's daughter Stella.)
For all that, the one who seems most influential in the way Miral turns out is Jamal, who is also the most interesting and sympathetic character (not excluding Miral) – in large part because of Siddig's performance. Some others fare less well: There's nothing wrong with Willem Dafoe's work here, except that his character, an American officer, serves absolutely no function in his few scenes. Even more distracting is Vanessa Redgrave, who is in only one scene, at the very beginning, and whose presence seems more an ideological imprimatur – and perhaps a flash point to create controversy – than anything else. (She has been a vocal supporter of Palestinian causes.)
Schnabel seems more stylistically restrained here than usual: His most striking visual effect is a blurring of the frame during the "Nadia" chapter. The filmmaker says it was meant to convey a child's blurred imaginings or memories; unfortunately, I (and virtually everyone I've talked to) misread it as a sign of Nadia's increasing alcoholism.
Schnabel and his collaborators get points for taking on a crucial and underrepresented viewpoint. If only the result were more compelling.... Grade: C (Rated PG-13 for thematic material, and some violent content including a sexual assault.)