Postcard from Venice: Sofia Coppola's Somewhere Tranfixes, Julian Schnabel's Miral Disappoints

Film festivals aren't always the glamorous affairs they're made out to be. Aside from the usual red carpet action, at most festivals it's unusual to see famous types out and about, potentially rubbing shoulders with mere mortals. And as much as I love the occasional random surprise celebrity sighting, that's fine with me. The downside to most festivals is that there's too much to see in an extremely short amount of time, and I need some real life banked around my movies.

The best non-celebrities on the Lido, in my estimation, can often be found walking along the stretch of sidewalk running parallel to the beach, in the vicinity of the majestic old Hotel Des Bains, which is where Thomas Mann set Death in Venice (and which appears to be undergoing some sort of renovation -- I fear it might be a condominium conversion). That's where, particularly around dusk, the elderly gents of the Lido can be found walking their (often) pot-bellied dogs, oblivious to the many journalists, critics and industry types rushing about, importantly, with their festival badges. These tend to be slow-moving guys, and slow-moving dogs, which is part of why I always like seeing them. They're a reminder that there is life outside listening to a bunch of journalists and critics nattering on about Black Swan, or whatever. Not that those discussions aren't sometimes fun -- but at festivals, where so many of our ilk congregate, it can be a pleasure to slip out of them temporarily. Bully for us, packing so many exquisite (or not) cinematic works into any given day! Somewhere out there, there's a dog waiting for his walk.

I wish I had a dog to walk right now, which would give me more time to think about Sofia Coppola's luminous, elusive Somewhere. Somewhere was the second movie of my day: The first was Julian Schnabel's Miral, a fictional (though somewhat fact-based) story set against the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I had high hopes for Miral, since Schnabel's last feature, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, was one of my favorite movies of the past decade. Miral is, paradoxically, both more modest and more ambitious than Diving Bell: Schnabel doesn't face the challenge of getting inside the mind of a man who's almost completely sealed off from the world; on the other hand, he's treading into extremely sticky political territory here, and the story he's trying to tell -- in which the lives of four women intertwine, over a span of some 45 years -- is technically more complicated.

somewhere_venice_500.jpgBut Miral is a disappointment. Schnabel works with some wonderful actors here: Hiam Abbas plays the real-life figure Hind Husseini, who, in 1948, rescued some 50 child refugees from the streets of Jerusalem and went on to found a school for Palestinian girls who'd been traumatized or orphaned by war. But so much of Abbas' dialogue consists of stiff platitudes (the script is by journalist Rula Jebreal, based on her novel of the same name); her character has been reduced to a dull, saintly figure, and not even Abbas can find a way out of that miniature prison. Freida Pinto also stars as a young Palestinian woman who flirts with terrorism, and she's an appealing presence. But Schnabel seems to be out of his depth in shaping the material so we know how we're supposed to feel about her. The dialogue in Miral contains many seemingly sincere declarative sentences about Jews and Palestinians living in harmony, but its decidedly pro-Palestinian sentiment is what really comes through. Not that there's anything wrong with that. It's just that Schnabel seems to be out of his element here; his gift for subtlety seems temporarily lost. While he's made at least one other film that you could certainly call political -- the 2000 Before Night Falls, about the Cuban writer Reinaldo Arenas -- Schnabel seems to be delivering a brief here. He still has a painter's eye for composition, but that's just not enough to make Miral come alive.

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