A radical organization should not entrust the names of its members to a teenaged girl with a crush on one of those members. The risk for everyone involved creates some of the most tense moments in Miral, Julian Schnabel's film based on Rula Jebreal's partially autobiographical novel about several Palestinian women living in what became occupied territories after the six day war in 1967. In it, Miral's (Freida Pinto) rebellious teen phase blossoms at the same time as the Intifada uprising begins in the territories (circa 1987), and it is a tumultuous time both between Israelis and Arabs, and among Palestinian factions who favor different approaches to issues of land and peace.
It's no small challenge to set a film against the political, religious and territorial conflicts of the Middle East. How Miral reconciles the greater clashes of her world and her personal life is the compelling core of the film, but it takes a while to set up. The story begins long before her birth, and we watch as Hind al-Husseini (Hiam Abbass) sets up a school to care for war orphans in the wake of fighting that erupted when Isreal was created in 1948. Decades later, Miral enters that school, though she is not an orphan.
As Miral matures, she is drawn to the fight for Palestinian statehood; she falls for a young man caught up in the Intifada's agitation; she scorns her father (the brilliant Alexander Saddig) for his political passivity; and she unwittingly threatens to disrupt Husseini's neutrality — the tactic that has allowed the woman to care for orphaned Palestinians for decades. Miral also has a cousin who falls in love with a Jewish woman.
Impressive performances by Pinto and Saddig propel the film and help it ultimately escape what look like insurmountable constraints set by the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians. Whether she can live outside history or change it is at stake. The film spends too long between Husseini's creation of the orphanage and Miral's arrival. Some of that is necessary, but it seems like the two women we meet in transition play bigger parts in the novel and are minor characters here. Some of the tumult is visually replicated by long stretches of jerky camera panning and close-ups. But in the end, the film is able to clear away the rubble and focus on Miral's inner conflict in an impressive and compelling way. — Will Coviello
Opens May 20
Chalmette Movies, 8700 W. Judge Perez Drive, 304-9992; www.chalmettemovies.com