Alexander Siddig and Freida Pinto in "Miral." (Jose Haro / Associated Press )
Julian Schnabel broadens his canvas for his fourth film, "Miral," turning his lens on multiple protagonists and a half-century of Middle East strife. On the face of it a bold undertaking, the Jerusalem-set feature plays out with an awkward staidness, the results not so much prismatic as fragmented.
The story of four Palestinian women, "Miral" is no political tract but a Sirkian melodrama, emphasis on heartache, selfless sacrifice and often lush visuals. The painter-turned-director knows how to manipulate his widescreen images to create a rarefied atmosphere too.
But while style had an illuminating power in "Basquiat," "Before Night Falls" and "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly," here it feels as self-conscious as the script's simplified history lessons.
Adapting her autobiographical novel, journalist Rula Jebreal traces the matriarchal lineage of the title character. The story begins decades before her birth, in the days preceding the establishment of Israel. Hind Husseini, the woman who will become Miral's surrogate mother, rescues dozens of Palestinian children orphaned in a 1948 attack on their village.
Played by the fine actress Hiam Abbass (best known stateside for "The Visitor"), the well-to-do Hind is an intriguing character, never looking back as she welcomes hundreds of orphans into what would become Dar Al-Tifel, a school that's still functioning. Two brief, evocative scenes with a visiting American (Willem Dafoe) suggest a path untaken, but Hind's emotional life goes unexplored.
Instead Abbass is burdened with stilted expository dialogue and a series of increasingly gray wigs as the story progresses and Miral (Freida Pinto) takes center stage.
In the "Slumdog Millionaire" actress' performance, the center does not hold. Miral, who falls in love with a political activist, is meant to be the inheritor of her biological mother's emotional fragility and her aunt's passion for justice. The lovely Pinto is able to lend her role a youthful tenderness, but her fire burns only so deep.
The lack of a compelling lead figure, combined with Schnabel's tentative approach to the material, casts the film's later stretches in the balmy glow of soap opera.
Using the touch-points of 1967's Six Day War and 1987's intifada, when teenage Miral is galvanized into action by the sight of Israeli bulldozers razing Palestinian homes, Schnabel paints a convincing picture of displacement and life under occupation. Without undue emphasis, he and cinematographer Eric Gautier use the parched landscape — they filmed in Jerusalem — and its checkpoints to eloquent effect.
The film works best in its depictions of everyday negotiations, as when Miral's cousin begins dating a Jew (played by the director's daughter, Stella Schnabel).
"Miral" doesn't aim to present every point of view, only that of its characters. There's nothing "anti-Israel," as some have claimed, about its earnest, if simplistic call for compassion and peace. One of the strongest scenes involves a would-be act of terrorism by a Palestinian and unequivocally identifies with the intended victims. And Miral's journey leads her back to her gentle father (Alexander Siddig) and to Mama Hind, voices of patience, moderation and love.
MPAA rating: PG-13 on appeal for thematic material and some violent content, including a sexual assault
Running time: 1 hour, 46 minutes
Playing: At the Landmark, West Los Angeles; Arclight Hollywood, Los Angeles