Filmmaker Julian Schnabel may have been born in Brooklyn, but it’s hard not to think that it was his upbringing as a Jew in Brownsville, that made him the artist he is today. Schnabel has directed four movies, each one a study in isolation and invention in an unfamiliar environment. In Basquiat, a young African-American graffiti artist is thrown to the top of the lily-white modern art world; in Before Night Falls, a gay poet endures persecution and prison in communist Cuba; and in The Diving Bell & the Butterfly, a French magazine editor is silenced and paralyzed by a stroke before composing his memoirs by blinking. In Schnabel’s world, the hero is an outsider who uses creation as a means of self-actualization.
In his latest movie, Miral, Schnabel takes this drama and places it on the world-historical stage. The title character (played by Freida Pinto of Slumdog Millionaire) is the ultimate outsider, a Palestinian Israeli woman coming of age during the first intifada in 1987, caught between the peaceful urgings of her childhood teacher and the violent revolutionary impulses of the man she’s sweet on. Miral’s tale of an extremely liminal life is tailor-made for Schnabel’s aesthetic, and as a Jew whose mother was once president of the Brooklyn chapter of a Zionist group, Schnabel—the champion of the outsider—must have taken a perverse joy in telling a story so supportive of the Palestinian cause and critical of the Israeli one. So how does Miral go so terribly wrong?
The problem is that Schnabel’s need to make something important got in the way of his ability to make something resonant. The script is ponderous, humorless and drowning in its own sense of social significance. Miral has plenty of dramatic incidents—bombs explode, people are arrested, lips are kissed—but they have no movement, life or meaning. In Schnabel’s earlier movies, his heroes spiral toward destruction—addiction in Basquiat, exile in Night, and decay in Diving Bell—but they find meaning by turning inward. Schnabel knows that the depth of any true outsider comes from his or her interior life, and what made him such a visionary director was that through revolutionary manipulations of color and light, he could make the thoughts and memories of a single human being as fascinating and energizing as a trip through the streets of New York or the prisons of Cuba.
Miral, though, isn’t the story of a particular person struggling to find a sense of herself in a violent world; it’s the story of any person struggling to find a sense of self in a violent world. Schnabel has said in interviews that he felt compelled to make Miral because “I’ve spent most of my life receding from my responsibility as a Jewish person.” It turns out a sense of responsibility is a terrible motivator for making a movie, because it makes watching that movie feel like a responsibility as well.
Watch a preview for Miral.