Sensitive and potentially controversial issues are common fodder for cinema. Through the eyes of a great director, such topics can be transformed into powerful art, forming complex, multifaceted, and thought provoking pieces of film that challenge our perceptions and preconceived notions. In our current global political climate, any story about the Israeli-Arab conflict is sure to turn some heads, and one told from the perspective of a Palestinian woman is sure to make some of those heads spin. Julian Schnabel's 'Miral' does just that. Perhaps unfairly maligned by many mainstream critics, 'Miral' is much more than its provocative logline would have you believe. This is a brave film that takes on a perspective that is often unjustly dismissed or ignored. Still, courage alone does not make a great movie, and while 'Miral' has moments of true emotional power and insightful commentary, the film suffers from some structural issues and undeveloped plotlines, leading to a story that feels slightly unfulfilled. The filmmakers try so hard to create an important film, that some basic elements of a good film seem to fall by the wayside. The end result, while still worthwhile, is muddled and not quite as significant as it aspires to be.
Based on the semi-autobiographical novel written by Rula Jebreal, the main focus of the story is Miral (Freida Pinto), a young Palestinian woman who grows up in the midst of constant, bloody conflict all around her. Her journey, perspective, and reactions to the bigger machinations raging violently across her home, form the main arc of the film. The movie also follows the stories of Miral's mother, Nadia (Yasmine Elmasri) as she descends down a dark path, and the kindhearted Hind Husseini (Hiam Abbass) who opens up a school for orphaned children and acts as a surrogate mother to Miral while preaching peace.
The structure of the script favors a compressed treatment of time and we shift around a lot from one decade to the next and one character to the next rather quickly. The opening segments form a kind of episodic mosaic, setting up the basic conflict, Hind and her school, as well as the story of Nadia, which all eventually lead to Miral and her own personal journey through conflicting ideologies. While I understand the intent behind covering the personal and historical back-story, the film's treatment of these sequences is rather underdeveloped and the transitions between characters seem fleeting and rushed. Both Hind and Nadia's stories are never fully realized. Going along with this, the movie also tends to gloss over details, both personal and historical, which may leave many uninitiated viewers lost in the political maneuverings of the time. Ultimately though, this isn't really much of an issue, as the intricacies of the various attacks, groups, and wars aren't necessary to grasp the story's deeper themes.
The larger Israeli-Arab conflict is an ever present factor in the film, but the real core of the narrative is actually much more simple and personal, telling the story of young girl finding her path in life. The film is at its best when focusing on this emotional center. The relationship between Miral and her father Jamal (Alexander Siddig in an amazing performance), is the heart and soul of the movie and his desperate attempts to prevent his daughter from repeating the same mistakes as her mother are both inspiring and heartbreaking. Pinto is also fantastic in these scenes and the film as a whole, proving that her turn in 'Slumdog Millionaire' was no fluke. A friendship that forms between Miral and a Jewish girl also provides some interesting insight without ever coming across as heavy handed or contrived.
Despite the strength of the Father/Daughter plotline and various other emotionally charged arcs, the movie doesn't fully stick its landing, with an ending that feels hasty and thematically incomplete. While I can definitely see that the end point is a key transitional time for Miral and the region, the film still feels slightly unfinished, as if there are some missing beats here and there that would help connect some dots and bring together a more potent and cohesive thematic bridge. It feels like we are just getting to really know Miral when the movie decides to end, and as presented here, her story, though interesting, isn't always very compelling.
Like his previous effort, the amazing 'The Diving Bell and the Butterfly,' Schnabel employs a heavily stylized approach. Much of the film is shot in a shaky, handheld, verite manner with occasional POV shots and actual archive footage, giving a raw and intimate feel. Focus is often distorted and manipulated providing certain sequences with an almost abstract or hazy quality. Close-ups of specific objects or subjects in motion, like a bed post or a woman's stomach, become artistic windows into deeper levels of mood and emotion. Colors are also manipulated in a blown out, mostly over-saturated, but harsh presentation, which seems to have now become the de facto style for filming the Middle East. All of these formalistic techniques help to elevate the content, though sometimes Schnabel can go a bit too far and his visual choices don't always connect as strongly as intended, creating a sporadically empty, disorienting, and even annoying experience.
The film was the source of quite a bit of controversy and negative backlash when first released, though honestly after seeing the movie, I'm not really sure what all the fuss was about. Yes, Israel is not always shown in the most flattering light, and there is indeed a scene which features an Israeli soldier torturing Miral, but there is nothing about the filmmakers' approach that leads me to believe that this isn’t an honest portrayal of a complicated conflict. Brutality exists on all sides, and the idea that Israel is incapable of wrongdoing is ridiculous. With 'Miral,' Schnabel isn't necessarily choosing sides, he's merely telling a story from another viewpoint that is so rarely examined. The goal of the film isn't to point fingers, vilify, or elicit hatred. It's simply to open up a dialogue and reveal, that like most everything in this world, this struggle is not black and white. The director is Jewish, the producer is Jewish, and for what it's worth, so am I, and I never found the story to be anti-Semitic or offensive. Kindness and cruelty have no nationality, sex, race, creed, or religion, and all men are capable of both good and evil, and this film attempts to wash away generalities and unfair negative groupings of certain cultures and people by forming a more personal and well-rounded examination through one girl's story.
Ultimately, 'Miral' isn't a film about conflict at all, but instead a deep rooted desire for peace, and a painful longing to provide a better world for our children. Despite the walls of hatred we build around each other, at our true core, none of us want to live in hostility. Schnabel has painted a thoughtful exploration of the difficult struggle to survive physically, mentally, emotionally, and morally intact in the midst of constant violence. The film's faults surprisingly have little to do with its political content, instead hinging on some cluttered, jumbled, and underdeveloped structural and stylistic choices. This isn't quite the important milestone of brave filmmaking that some may make it out to be, but it also surely isn't the offensive disaster that others have condemned it as. Though 'Miral' never comes together fully and never reaches the great heights it strives for, it does tell a worthwhile story that offers enough insight and emotion to warrant a recommendation.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
'Miral' is brought to Blu-ray by Anchor Bay Entertainment on a single region A BD-25 disc housed in a standard case. Some skippable trailers play upon startup before transitioning to a standard motion menu.
The movie is provided with a 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 transfer in the 2.35:1 aspect ratio. Featuring a highly stylized look, the transfer can appear quite striking at times.
The source print is nice and pristine with some light to moderate natural grain visible throughout, adding a rich film like texture. Detail can be very strong, exhibiting a razor sharp quality and several scenes display a great level of depth. The director does like to play around with focus and thus some shots can appear slightly hazy or blurred, but this is all deliberate. Colors are often over-saturated and unnatural, but the look fits well with the filmmaker's expressionistic intentions. Black levels are deep and inky and contrast is often strong but blown out.
Though the cinematography and color choices might seem overly stylized or harsh to some, the transfer supports the film's intended look flawlessly with sometimes incredible detail that takes full advantage of the Blu-ray medium's strengths. The image might not always be visually pleasing, but when it is, it can be absolutely dazzling.
'Miral' is presented with a DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track. The film features a variety of languages spoken throughout including Arabic and Hebrew, but the vast majority of dialogue is in English. English, English SDH, and Spanish subtitle options are also included. The audio as a whole is surprisingly immersive, with a great balance of subtle and more robust sound design elements.
Dialogue is clean and full sounding, with no crackles or distortion. Directionality is handled well and surround use is frequent without ever being unnatural or gimmicky. Ambient effects and music cues litter the rear channels with deliberate purpose that create a full and enveloping experience. Dynamic range is great, providing a wide and pleasing expanse between frequencies, giving whispers and explosions proper proportion. Bass can also be strong, packing a powerful punch in the few battle scenes. Everything is balanced well with good depth and fidelity.
'Miral' is a great example of diverse, expansive, but still artfully restrained sound design. The aural choices fit perfectly with the artistic direction and carry a welcomed level of technical prowess and creative intent. This won't show off your system as aggressively as a Hollywood action film would, but the nuance of the design is still impressive.
Anchor Bay has provided a decent selection of supplements including some featurettes and a commentary. All of the extras are presented in standard definition with English Dolby Digital sound and optional English SDH subtitles.
'Miral' is a brave and honest look at some controversial issues, illuminating the gray world we live in from a perspective we rarely see. While certain directing and structural choices don't always work, the film succeeds in opening up a dialogue about topics we often shy away from. The disc itself features great video and audio presentations and some decent supplements. Though the subject matter certainly won't be for everyone, this title still gets my recommendation.