Miral, Julian Schnabel, 112 mins, (12A)
Of Gods and Men, Xavier Beauvois, 120 mins (15)

Julian Schnabel's promising career as an innovative director takes a dive in this clumsy Middle East-set melodrama whose script, score and acting are all wanting

It took three films for the artist Julian Schnabel to convince the world that he was more than a plate-smashing dauber with a celluloid hobby. The Diving Bell and the Butterfly was a genuinely visionary work, brilliantly contriving a way to see through the eyes of its disabled hero. It was far too good to suggest a fluke – yet it seems from Schnabel's follow-up Miral that everything he had learnt about film-making he's now forgotten at a stroke.

An essay on Palestine, seen through the experience of one woman, Miral is adapted from her own autobiographical book by Rula Jebreal, a journalist and TV current affairs presenter who is also now Schnabel's partner. In fact, the film doesn't become the story of Jebreal's surrogate, Miral, till nearly an hour in. It begins by following the career of the real-life Hind Husseini (Hiam Abbass), who founded an orphanage after discovering a troop of homeless Palestinian children in Jerusalem in 1948. In an appalling piece of literal-minded metaphor on Schnabel's part, she leads them out of dark alleyways – and into blazing daylight. She then creates her establishment, Dar al-Tifl; helpfully for non-Arabic speakers, a character comments, "Dar-al-Tifl, that's a good name for a school – 'children's home'."

The daughter of an abused, alcoholic mother, Miral is taken in by Husseini; in a single shot, Miral walks out of a door as a child and returns as a young woman, played by Freida Pinto from Slumdog Millionaire. Becoming politicised, she joins the Palestinian struggle, is tortured by Israeli police, and in one scene is educated about the stakes of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict by an activist boyfriend who breaks off from a clinch to expound the argument for a two-state solution.

The crudeness of Miral partly stems from Jebreal's ungainly, on-the-nose script: at one point, Husseini addresses her wards: "Girls, listen to me – this is a very crucial moment for our country. Some of you may have heard there is an uprising – what is being called an intifada." It doesn't help that the dialogue keeps jumping, apparently at random, from Arabic or Hebrew to American English. ("These kids need us – and we need them too!")

As director, Schnabel should have had the sense to polish the script; he should have directed his actors so that they didn't sound as if they were attending a first read-through; and he should have resisted drowning the soundtrack in plaintive violins (Laurie Anderson's contribution, I think). His näive, over-excitable direction is hooked on spuriously intense close-ups: a character can barely turn a door handle without Schnabel wanting to get right in there.

As Miral, Pinto is coyly insipid, the Indian actress never remotely convincing as a Palestinian. (She's actually a dead ringer for Jebreal, but that shouldn't have influenced the casting.) Vanessa Redgrave and Willem Dafoe drop in for awkward cameos, grinning furiously as if attending a benefit gala for a good cause. This is clumsy consciousness-raising melodrama, unworthy of its complex subject – you almost suspect that Mossad might covertly have nobbled it to discredit pro-Palestinian cinema.

In contrast, here's a drama as sober as Miral is sentimental – as sternly a Film as Miral is a Movie. Directed by Xavier Beauvois, Of Gods and Men is based on a true story that's better known in France than here. It would therefore be a spoiler to tell you more, but I imagine that for anyone who knows the background, the film will have a tragic resonance from the start. The setting is a Cistercian monastery in Algeria in 1995, where the resident French monks have been advised to leave the country given the period's rise in fundamentalist violence. The brethren, who have cordial relations with the local community, search their souls – some calmly, some in agony – as they decide what to do.

Scripted by the film's producer Etienne Comar, Of Gods and Men offers a mature and complex meditation on religious belief, courage and the post-colonial trauma that still dogs France (and its former colonies even more). It so happens that the monastery's cerebral abbot (Lambert Wilson) is a devoted scholar of the Koran, able to debate Islam with the mujahideen who arrive at his door.

This unapologetically low-key film has something of the contemplative solemnity of Into Great Silence, the documentary about Trappist monks that was an art-house hit four Christmases ago. The drama is punctuated by scenes of liturgical chanting that make for a kind of rarefied religious musical. But this is also a gripping political thriller in which the prospect of violence always hangs over these men of peace. It's a film that takes the idea of heroism seriously, not in a pious or glamorising manner, but as a stark existential question of what it means to stick to your beliefs at the risk of your life. For all its gentleness and no-nonsense lucidity, this is also a very male film that treats the monk's calling as a tough job for professionals who had better have the right stuff – The Hurt Locker in surplices.

The film includes one of the year's most affecting and intimate screen moments – a scene in which the monks, with doom at their very doorstep, sit at dinner listening to Tchaikovsky's Swan Lake, as Caroline Champetier's camera scans their faces one by one in searching close-up. The ensemble cast, headed by Wilson and the affably magisterial Michael Lonsdale, is superb. Beauvois directs with quiet toughness. And the spare, no-frills script asks difficult and pressing questions about personal and collective responsibility, and that argues persuasively for mutual understanding between faiths and cultures. This is commanding, immensely satisfying and unusually grown-up cinema. Julian Schnabel could learn a lot from it.

Next W eek:

Jonathan Romney watches Sofia Coppola's latest examination of the life luxurious, Somewhere.

Suggested Topics
Arts and Entertainment
Wonder.land Musical by Damon Albarn


Arts and Entertainment

Film review

Arts and Entertainment
Innocent victim: Oli, a 13-year-old from Cornwall, featured in ‘Kids in Crisis?’
TV review
Northern exposure: social housing in Edinburgh, where Hassiba now works in a takeaway
books An Algerian scientist adjusts to life working in a kebab shop
Arts and Entertainment
Terminator Genisys: Arnie remains doggedly true to his word as the man who said 'I'll be back', returning once more to protect Sarah Connor in a new instalment


film review
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment

Final Top Gear review

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Pete Doherty and Carl Barat perform at Glastonbury 2015

Arts and Entertainment
Lionel Richie performs live on the Pyramid stage during the third day of Glastonbury Festival

Arts and Entertainment
Buying a stairway to Hubbard: the Scientology centre in Los Angeles
film review Chilling inside views on a secretive church
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Williamson, left, and Andrew Fearn of Sleaford Mods
musicYou are nobody in public life until you have been soundly insulted by Sleaford Mods
Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dew (Jess) in Bend It Like Beckham The Musical
theatreReview: Bend It Like Beckham hits back of the net on opening night
Arts and Entertainment
The young sea-faring Charles Darwin – seen here in an 1809 portrait – is to be portrayed as an Indiana Jones-style adventurer
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Greece says 'No': A night of huge celebrations in Athens as voters decisively back Tsipras and his anti-austerity stance in historic referendum

    Greece referendum

    Greeks say 'No' to austerity and plunge Europe into crisis
    Ten years after the 7/7 terror attacks, is Britain an altered state?

    7/7 bombings anniversary

    Ten years after the terror attacks, is Britain an altered state?
    Beautiful evening dresses are some of the loveliest Donatella has created

    Versace haute couture review

    Beautiful evening dresses are some of the loveliest Donatella has ever created
    No hope and no jobs, so Gaza's young risk their lives, climb the fence and run for it

    No hope and no jobs in Gaza

    So the young risk their lives and run for it
    Fashion apps: Retailers roll together shopping and social networking for mobile customers

    Fashion apps

    Retailers roll together shopping and social networking for mobile customers
    The Greek referendum exposes a gaping hole at the heart of the European Union – its distinct lack of any genuine popular legitimacy

    Gaping hole at the heart of the European Union

    Treatment of Greece has shown up a lack of genuine legitimacy
    Number of young homeless in Britain 'more than three times the official figures'

    'Everything changed when I went to the hostel'

    Number of young homeless people in Britain is 'more than three times the official figures'
    Compton Cricket Club

    Compton Cricket Club

    Portraits of LA cricketers from notorious suburb to be displayed in London
    London now the global money-laundering centre for the drug trade, says crime expert

    Wlecome to London, drug money-laundering centre for the world

    'Mexico is its heart and London is its head'
    The Buddhist temple minutes from Centre Court that helps a winner keep on winning

    The Buddhist temple minutes from Centre Court

    It helps a winner keep on winning
    Is this the future of flying: battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks?

    Is this the future of flying?

    Battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks
    Isis are barbarians – but the Caliphate is a dream at the heart of all Muslim traditions

    Isis are barbarians

    but the Caliphate is an ancient Muslim ideal
    The Brink's-Mat curse strikes again: three tons of stolen gold that brought only grief

    Curse of Brink's Mat strikes again

    Death of John 'Goldfinger' Palmer the latest killing related to 1983 heist
    Greece debt crisis: 'The ministers talk to us about miracles' – why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum

    'The ministers talk to us about miracles'

    Why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum
    Call of the wild: How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate

    Call of the wild

    How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate