Julian Schnabel Paints Palestinian Women's Pain

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Director Julian Schnabel poses with actor Frieda Pinto (left) and Rula Jebreal, who is the basis for the character of Miral in the eponymous film. Dave J Hogan / Getty Images

If you wantedto make a movie about a larger-than-life painter, you'd cast Julian Schnabel in the title role. Big, bearded, and graying, Schnabel lives in a neo-Venetian palazzo in Greenwich Village. He favors a décor that hovers between faded royalty and Roman brothel. Receiving a journalist at noon on a Monday, he wears his trademark pajamas, this time purple with green piping. His glasses are tinted yellow because, he says, "the world is a little too blue for me."

Your movie just might make some money. Clichés sell.

The one director you wouldn't be able to get for your project would be Julian Schnabel. The movies he's made over the last 15 years have been noted for their subtlety, not their banality. They offer complex visions of a young artist dead before his time, of a persecuted gay poet, and of a bon vivant felled by stroke. That last film, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, won Schnabel the best-director prize at Cannes.

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Director Julian Schnabel poses with actor Frieda Pinto (left) and Rula Jebreal, who is the basis for the character of Miral in the eponymous film. Courtesy of Julian Schnabel Studio

But his new movie, Miral, is in a more declamatory mode. It charts a half century of Palestinian women coping with conflict. "I felt compelled to make this movie because it seemed the right thing to do," he says. "I put a mirror up to everybody—to the Palestinians and the Israelis." Yet some critics have complained that Schnabel's mirror is slanted—toward the Palestinians.

The movie begins in 1948, with the founding of a school for war-orphaned Palestinian girls. It continues through the 1960s, following a rape victim who takes her own life. Its third act follows that woman's daughter, Miral, who dabbles with extremism and, as the movie closes, is setting off for a career in Italy. The character of Miral is an avatar of Rula Jebreal, whose 2004 autobiography inspired the script. Schnabel met her in Rome, when she was 34 and he was 56, and agreed to film her book. The two became a couple, and Jebreal eventually moved to America, displacing Olatz López Garmendia, Schnabel's second wife.

The filmmaker gets incensed at anyone who claims there's fiction in his new inamorata's story. At one screening, he says, Barbra Streisand questioned the film's account of a whipping Jebreal received. "You know what I wanted to do? I wanted to pick up [Jebreal's] shirt and show her her back," he says. "I'm not making this stuff up. What I'm doing is telling this story from her point of view."

That may be true, but the movie is being read as reflecting its maker's politics. After a screening in Toronto, one of Canada's most prominent writers (and a Gentile) called the film "a piece of blatant propaganda that does all it can to denigrate Israel." Other critics have been equally un-kind. Schnabel says, "I don't see it as anti-Israeli; I think it's pro-peace." The film's goal, he adds, is to teach about the plight of the Palestinians, and to make us feel it as well.

Yet at times the script does so much teaching that credible feelings fade from view. In one much-derided scene, Miral and her terrorist boyfriend take a break from heavy petting to pronounce on a two-state solution to the Palestinian crisis.

Maybe the way to understand the problem with this film is to frame it in fine-art terms. After making three movies that functioned as sensitive portraits, Schnabel has taken a stab at history painting—think Washington Crossing the Delaware or Liberty Leading the People. It's a classic genre, but it always risks didacticism.

Schnabel's paintings have tended too far in the other direction. Many art critics, myself included, have felt that his paintings veer into grandiloquence and poetastery, answering to so many of the clichés of Great Art that they miss becoming the real thing. Our great museums—the Museum of Modern Art, the National Gallery—have mostly taken a pass on collecting him in depth.

For many culturati, it took the painter's films to restore him to favor. The job of telling an authentic story on screen has encouraged Schnabel to be more straightforward and declarative than capital-P Poetic. The danger is that with Miral, the declarative seems to have taken over. Schnabel thinks of it as simply telling the truth. "If you look at what's happening all over the world right now, and you hear this girl [in the movie] say, 'Why can't we have a real democracy, like in New York City'—isn't that what all these thousands of Arab people are screaming?"

Julian Schnabel Paints Palestinian Women's Pain | Culture