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