Saturday, April 16, 2011


MPAA (R) Michael Phillips (2 Stars) Fr. Dennis (4 Stars)

IMDb listing
Michael Phillips review

I did not expect to like Miral (directed by Julian Schnabel, novel and scenario by Rula Jebreal) as much as I did. However,did I ever _come to love_ this movie and for a whole host of reasons. So let me list them now:

First, one lesson that I’ve learned in my life has been that one of the greatest tragedies of the "great historical dramas" that play out around us is that they simply impose another layer of awfulness over the smaller/more intimate tragedies in life. I wrote about this as well in my review of the Spanish movie Biutiful (about a couple of second generation descendants of Moroccan immigrants trying to make out an existence in Barcelona of today). The movie Miral, however, takes this point and presents it in spades.

For while "the grand drama" of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict plays-out, the characters in Miral, continue to suffer their multitude of such smaller/more intimate tragedies. The main character Miral’s mother, Nadia (played by Yasmine Al Massri), was sexually abused as a teenager. Miral’s saintly father, Jamal (played by Alexander Siddig) an imam at the Al Aqsa mosque on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, who fell in love and married Miral’s mother _precisely_ because she was such a mess, eventually comes down with cancer. Hind Hussaini (played by Haim Abbass), the directress of the boarding school to which Miral is assigned after Miral’s troubled mother commits suicide, eventually succumbs to old age. Miral (played by Frieda Pinto) herself grows up something of an orphan, though she goes home to be with her father every weekend. Everyone of these stories could have made for a movie in itself.

And yes, I have the order of the story "right." As Miral herself begins to narrate her story, she begins by saying "I was born in 1973 but my story really began in 1947 (with the partition plan to divide Palestine between Israel and the Palestinians)." As one who also could not explain easily why I was born in the United States without explaining how my parents got here (my parents were Czech immigrants who came to the United States by means two sets of terrible stories), I understood _completely_ why "Miral’s story" began 27 years before she was born – Both Hitler and Stalin were unwanted but ever present "guests" at my home at every family gathering that I remember growing-up. And plenty of Jewish Americans and Israelis growing up with stories of their parents and grandparents living during the Holocaust could certainly appreciate the back-dated beginnings of their stories as well.

So hanging over the "more normal"/ "little" tragedies that still afflict most of us in one way or another, in the story of Miral was _added_ the _awful pall_ of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict resulting in a perpetual state of anxiety on the part of Israelis and in a seemingly unending torrent of tragedies on the part of the Palestinians, bringing _no one peace_. Israelis can’t even enter a bus or a movie theater without feeling anxious about exposing themselves to possible terrorist attack, Palestinians have their homes torn down by Israeli battering rams and earth movers in retribution for crimes that a relative may (or may not) have been involved in; close friends get killed by stray Israeli bullets dispersing rioters/demonstrators (whether they were involved or not); and they are beaten / tortured when they get picked-up by Israeli authorities on suspicion of being involved in _possible_ terrorist/subversive activity. How unbelievably awful.

Second, I liked this movie because it was presented largely from _the perspective of the young_. I am convinced that by the time one is in one’s 40s, one’s large life decisions have been played out. Hence the imams, the school directors, yes, the Israeli military officers or the PLO officials operating (then) out of Tunisia have largely played out their hands (as best as they could), but I do believe that it is the young, those in their late teens through their twenties, who have a chance to make something better. And to its credit, the movie shows THAT THERE IS HOPE. And I myself can testify to that hope.  When _I_ was in grad school, still studying engineering back then before changing directions and becoming a priest, I knew a good number of Arab students in my department and it struck me that _always_ among the most moderate were the Palestinians. One of them put it very, very well to me one time: "We have to find a way to life in peace. We simply have to. To others (and other Arabs) this is a theoretical conflict. To us, we see it day to day. The land is too small, we live too close together, we have to find a way to live in peace."

And _this sentiment_ that I heard 20 years ago, plays out in this movie. Miral, a young woman in her late teens falls in love with a Palestinian fighter, Hani (played by Omar Metwally)  He is a determined patriot but _not_ a crazed fanatic. In fact, he ends up being killed by more radical Palestinian fighters because _he_ was willing to go along with Arafat's PLO and accept 22% of Palestine for a Palestinian state in return for peace.

Then when Jerusalem proves too hot for Miral’s safety, her saintly imam father sends her to her aunt living in Haifa. There Miral finds that her cousin has fallen in love with an Israeli girl named Lisa (played by Stella Schnabel). Initially, she disapproves, but Lisa proves to be nice (even though Lisa’s father is an Israeli military officer and disapproves with her having Palestinian friends).

In the Bible, it took a generation of wandering out in the Desert before the Israelites made it to the Promised Land (and I know that we can choose to take this image _literally_ or perhaps today, more appropriately _symbolically_). Perhaps it will take _several generations_ before peace is finally achieved between the Israelis and Palestinians, BUT I AM POSITIVE THAT IT WILL COME AS A RESULT OF THE CONTACTS AND THE _INNOCENCE_ / _CLEAN SLATE_ OF THE YOUNG. With each generation there is new hope.

AND THIS HOPE EXTENDS BEYOND THE ISRAELI-PALESTINIAN CONFLICT. I currently live and work in a part of Chicago where for at least 2-3 generations a collection of Slavs, Irish and Italians (calling themselves "Anglos" but have as much in common with "the English" as Cortes ever did) have looked down on Hispanics (mostly Mexicans with a few Puerto Ricans) living in the same neighborhoods, with the Hispanics resenting them for their arrogance. How long can this go on? The hope is that with every generation, it does get better, and I do believe that it does. The former Pope John Paul II, who’s being beatified on May 1st, must be rolling in his grave, knowing that Poles and Mexicans (whom he _loved_ and  there is AN ENORMOUS STATUE OF JOHN PAUL II by the side of the BASILICA OF OUR LADY OF GUADALUPE IN MEXICO CITY) don’t get along in places like Chicago. How is it possible when BOTH peoples suffered so much and BOTH peoples _love_ the Blessed Mother so much? And yet we look for reasons to dislike/hate each other. Yet with EACH GENERATION springs NEW HOPE and with each generation it _does_ get better.

Finally, I liked this movie because it is filled with great role models on all sides. There’s the Directress of the School, Miral’s imam father, Lisa the Israeli girlfriend of Miral’s cousin. There’s even the convicted Palestinian terrorist (a former nurse) who helps Miral’s mother when Miral’s mother finds herself in jail after causing a simple commotion on a bus ("get away from me, you creep," remember that she had been sexually abused...) rather than being in the process blowing up the bus as the other (Israeli) passengers feared. Almost no one is completely evil, and many, many people, if at times weak, are basically good.

So what a great and brave film! As the movie notes at the end, it is "dedicated to those who believe that peace is possible." So ... Shalom / Salaam / Paz / Pokój z wámi.  And may we one day have Peace.

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