Miral (US - BD RA)
Jonathan takes a look at the latest film from the director of Before Night Falls..
Miral begins in 1948 with the story of Hind Husseini (Hiam Abbas). She is a peaceful Palestinian woman who decides to open an orphanage in war-torn Jerusalem. It grows quickly to become the home of thousands of children in need of hope. The story then shifts to Nadia (Yasmine Elmasri), an alcoholic woman who struggled with her troubled past. After Nadia’s death, her daughter Miral (Freida Pinto) is taken to Hind’s orphanage. There, she is taught that education is the key to peace, and is sent out to Palestinian refugee camps to teach young children. As she grows disillusioned with the world outside of the orphanage, she walks the line between using violence to fight for her cause, and following Hind’s principles of enlightenment as a means of harmony.
First and foremost, I should point out that I have not read the book, nor was I familiar with the true story behind Miral before watching this film. I can’t testify to the film’s accuracy or faithfulness to the source, but judged solely as a film, it fails on many levels. The biggest problem with Miral is its complete lack of narrative focus. The film opens with a narration from Miral, saying that she can’t tell her own story without first sharing the story of hind Husseini. I’m inclined to disagree with her. We never hear narration from her again. The movie then goes into a couple of vignettes that tell the story of Hind Husseini and Miral’s mother Nadia. These segments take up the first forty minutes of the film, and while they serve as a decent history lesson, their dramatic elements do very little to contribute to Miral’s story. They could have easily been condensed into a shared ten minute segment. Finally, while approaching the film’s halfway point, the central story of Miral begins to unfold.
The politics of Miral are not an issue. Some have dismissed the film as being biased, but I never thought it took a side. It’s simply telling the personal story of a Palestinian girl, and her personal involvement with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The most propagandistic element of the film is the tagline, and that probably had little to do with the filmmakers. The film itself never approaches that tone. There are good intentions and a great message about the importance of education buried in this film, but the mishandling of the story and characters keep it from surfacing and having any impact. Right from the start of her segment, Miral’s personal growth and development feels rushed. After two scenes in the film, she is already upset and angered with the Israeli occupation. Had the first forty minutes not been dedicated to peripheral characters, there may have been time to make her despondency more convincing and sympathetic. Instead, we watch as she gets involved with dangerous activists and the wrong side of the law without ever buying into her personal motivations. As a result, the unfolding events throughout the rest of the film are largely disaffecting.
The actors do a good job with the material, but they don’t have much to work with. Unfortunately, many of the actors come from other countries (Freida Pinto is from India) so the filmmakers decided to have everyone speak English in this film. According to the commentary track with the director and producer, English is the second language of many Arab people, but the forced English dialogue makes for some alarmingly inconsistent accents. I know the language barrier had to have been a big hurdle for the filmmakers, and they didn’t clear it. Aside from detracting from the authenticity of the film, the tones and inflections of the dialogue feel really forced and unnatural, and it took me out of the drama on numerous occasions. This would have been more forgivable if they had a better script to read from. Most of the writing feels bland and forced. The characters always seem to speak broadly of morality and ideals, like they’re reading from a philosophy pamphlet. It made it incredibly difficult to believe in them and immerse myself in their conflict, and since the movie is all about their conflict, it ends up being a very boring experience.
In his previous film, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, Julian Schnabel brought a movie about a paralyzed protagonist to life with graceful style and humility; placing the viewer in his shoes and creating one of the most subjective film experiences I’ve had the pleasure of watching. He hangs onto some of those techniques in Miral, and it works to some extent. The disaffecting drama of the film is slightly improved by his capable visual style, because it helps to place us in the mind of the characters (which the dialogue and performances could not achieve). He uses blur effects and distorted audio to place us in sensory of the environment, or a state of drunkenness. Sometimes he will start a scene with a curiously vague image that draws our attention and slowly reveals the situation at hand to chilling effect. I particularly loved a tense scene that took place in a movie theatre of unsuspecting Israeli citizens watching Roman Polanski’s Repulsion. It’s compelling and invites favourable comparisons between the two director’s subjective styles. Occasionally, Schnabel’s techniques feel forced and unnecessary. Some indoor scenes that involve a simple exchange of words are met with a constantly moving handheld camera that does not compliment them well. Some uses of colour are uncreative. For example, there is a brief torture scene with boosted contrast and a green tint to give it that Saw-like appearance that is used way too often these days. Still, his kinetic camerawork and varying techniques help to make the film more watchable.
Anchor Bay gives Miral a decent 1080p (h.264/AVC) video transfer that sometimes falls victim to the varying styles that Schnabel uses. The darker, more harrowing scenes are lit by a dark blue sky, and the black levels look mostly solid with only the occasional blocking. Scenes taking place at the orphanage or an outdoor countryside have a much warmer, sun baked look to them, with slightly overcooked skin tones. This appears to be a stylistic choice, and not a colour problem with the transfer. There is a fine healthy layer of grain present throughout the film that is occasionally harsh and distracting in the digitally warmed scenes. Detail is strong for the most part, but varies with the style. Sharp edges are lost in the grainier scenes. There is a good amount of archived footage of the Palestinian streets that has an expected dip in quality. I noticed a distracting piece of debris on the lens in one scene that could’ve been digitally removed without compromising anything. This transfer isn’t reference level material, but there isn’t much to complain about.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track matches the video quality. Occasionally dialogue is murky and hard to distinguish from the environmental noise. Rear channels are used effectively, creating both ambient noise and distant turmoil, like explosions or the sounds of panicking people. The real highlight of the audio track is the music. The soundtrack sounds great. Lighter scenes are accompanied by lovely piano playing and beautiful string instruments that playfully fill the left and right channels. There is a reprising melancholic piece with longing horn instruments and dreary violins that often takes over the audio track, and sounds deeply mournful. Audio is sometimes muffled, distorted, or completely missing in certain scenes for stylistic effect. In a couple scenes, I could hear a very faint buzzing during quieter moments. I checked them against other quiet scenes for consistency, and it seems to be part of the audio track.
This disc has what looks like a healthy smattering of extra material, but much like the film, none of these features are particularly worthwhile or engaging. I passively listened to the commentary track with director Julian Schnabel and producer Jon Kilik while doing some other work. For those interested in the director’s personal views on the conflict and what he was trying to convey in this film, it’s a worthwhile listen. I was surprised to find out how much of the film was shot on location. Aside from the commentary, we have three short deleted scenes, a behind-the-scenes featurette, a look at Julian Schnabel’s studio, and a Q&A with the cast and crew. There is no subtitle track for the commentary, but every other special feature has English subtitles
Deleted Scenes (3:57, SD): There are three short deleted scenes. The first two deleted scenes take place at the start of the film. There is an extended opening and a scene from Hind Husseini’s segment. The last deleted scene has an extended ending, with more information about the people in the film and where they are now. It is easy to see why the first two didn’t fit in, but personally I would have left the last one.
The Making of Miral (14:07, SD): We see some footage of Rula Jebreal (the real Miral) on set, and have interviews with her, Freida Pinto, Hiam Abbas, and Julian Schnabel. Schnabel spends his time talking about how he got involved in the project, and what it means to him personally. Fredia and Rula share stories and comment on how similar they look. It is not a particularly informative behind-the-scenes look, but seeing Rula Jebreal and her mannerisms helped me to appreciate Freida Pinto’s performance more.
Julian Schnabel Studio Tour (7:23, SD) is a short look at Julian Schnabel’s art studio and a handful of pieces he has done. It only vaguely relates to the subject matter of the film. Painter types may find something to like here, but I found it rather uninteresting.
Filmmaker Q&A (31:50, SD) is a long session with the filmmakers. It is shot in a movie theatre with very poor audio quality. Much like the commentary track, this won’t keep your interest if the film didn’t, but fans should find it informative. They even talk about the film’s lack of success in certain critical circles, and the struggles they had distributing it. It reeks of filmmakers being way to close and emotionally invested in a film to recognize its failures, but I still admire their sincerity and dedication to their message.
Miral’s ambition and good intentions are not enough to outweigh the weaknesses of its screenplay. Film fanatics should skip this film and see Schnabel’s previous efforts, Before Night Falls and The Diving Bell and the Butterfly. If you want an alternative look at the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and what it is like to live under it, seek out the 2001 documentary Promises. Anchor Bay gives the film a fairly good transfer and audio track, but the extra features are lacking.
* Note: The below images are taken from the Blu-ray release and resized for the page. Full-resolution captures are available by clicking individual images, but due to .jpg compression they are not necessarily representative of the quality of the transfer.
Review by Jonathan Hogberg
Some material may be inappropriate for children under 13
Release Date: 12th July 2011
Disc Type: Blu-ray Disc
Audio: DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 English
Subtitles: English, English SDH, Spanish
Extras: Deleted Scenes, The Making of Miral, Julian Schnabel Studio Tour, Filmmaker Q&A, Feature Commentary with Director Julian Schnabel and Producer Jon Kilik
Easter Egg: No
Director: Julian Schnabel
Cast: Hiam Abbass, Freida Pinto, Yasmine Al Massri
Length: 106 minutes
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