- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 31, 2011

Wearing purple pants, orange shoes, a light-brown blazer, and an unbuttoned black pajama shirt revealing a forest of chest hair, filmmaker and painter Julian Schnabel saunters into the bar off the lobby of the Georgetown Ritz Carlton.

“I think Rula wanted to do the interview near the fireplace for some reason,” he says, referring to girlfriend Rula Jebreal, whose Middle East memoir inspired his controversial new movie “Miral.”

He peers out at the sterile, dimly lit room through a pair of Elton John sunglasses. “It’s nice,” he says, looking around. “But it does look like the scene in ‘The Godfather’ where they kill Luca Brasi.”

Like his movies, his paintings, and his wardrobe, Julian Schnabel’s interviews can be unconventional. His mind wanders (“that’s a great tie”). He turns the tables (“I want to know what you think about the questions you’re asking”). At one point, while Ms. Jebreal is speaking, he gets up without warning, paces around the lobby for two minutes, and sits back down.

Indeed, “Miral” might have been Mr. Schnabel’s most conventional work — a story of teenage rebellion set against the backdrop of war — if it weren’t for the fact that he is Jewish and the film’s main character, played by “Slumdog Millionaire’s” Freida Pinto, is Palestinian.

“I think as a Jewish person, what I needed to do was to present the other side so there is a dialogue instead of a monologue,” he says.

In Hollywood terms, Mr. Schnabel has a point. While Palestinian filmmakers have gained prominence in recent years, American movies about Israel — from “Cast a Giant Shadow” (1966) to “Munich” (2005) to “You Don’t Mess with the Zohan” (2008) — have typically featured a Jewish protagonist.

“We’ve been living in the Leon Uris narrative for all of these years,” he says, alluding to the most famous Israel epic, “Exodus” (1960). “It had a powerful impact on Jewish identity. I mean, when I was a kid, I was in the Ripley Theater with my mother and when they sang ‘Hatikvah’ [the Israeli national anthem], everybody stood up and put their hand on their chest. So if you think a film can have that kind of power, which I believe, I think that this film can do that.”

Whether “Miral” burns up the box office remains to be seen (it opens nationwide today). But the film has already endured a double-barreled assault from Israel supporters, who say that it unfairly portrays the Jewish state, and from critics who say that it unfairly portrays a movie. According to the film-review aggregation site “Rotten Tomatoes,” 80 percent of ‘Miral’s‘ reviews have been negative — some blisteringly so. It’s a change for Mr. Schnabel, whose first four films — including “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly” (2007), which earned him an Oscar nomination for best director — turned him from New York art-world darling to Hollywood heavyweight.

He claims “Miral’s” poor reviews don’t faze him, arguing that critics are swayed by “subliminal” biases and “don’t want to get fired from their jobs” for praising his film. He says he plans to use his own “reviews” — from actors and fellow directors, “people that are in the practice of making movies” — to help promote “Miral.” (As reported Thursday, at one point during the interview, Mr. Schnabel whipped out his iPhone and recited a meandering e-mail paean to the film from friend Josh Brolin.)

“We can get in our little corners and write our stuff down in our rooms, but when you’re in the room, you can feel it,” he says, as Ms. Jebreal nods. “In Venice, where we didn’t get good reviews, we watched the movie with 1,200 people. We had a 15-minute standing ovation. I was there! She’s standing there crying, couldn’t believe what was going on, and I had enough time to kiss everybody in the two rows I was in, and they were still clapping.

“And after, to see that people didn’t like it?” he continues. “Yeah, I actually think there’s a plan to undermine this thing because people wish that it would go away.”

That some wish “Miral” would “go away” is undeniable. Mainstream Jewish groups publicly protested the United Nations for serving as the venue for its U.S. premiere.

While Mr. Schnabel relishes the controversy — it’s been “spectacular for the movie,” he says — he doesn’t hide his annoyance at some of the criticism.

He refers to a scene where a Palestinian woman places an abortive bomb in an Israeli movie theater.

“Somebody will say or ask me, ‘Well, she didn’t really blow them up, so you didn’t show how bad she really was,’” he says. “Well, the truth is that the cinema did not blow up, ‘kay? … Am I supposed to blow it up to satisfy people that will say, ‘Oh, it showed that the Palestinians are really bad too, so now we feel more comfortable?’”

Those who accuse the film of lacking balance, he says, are missing the point.

“It’s her diary,” he says, looking at Ms. Jebreal. “I paint portraits in real life also. Is she entitled to have a portrait painted? That seems to be the issue. Can a Jewish man paint a portrait of a Palestinian girl? Or is it bad for Jewish people — is it bad for Israel? is it anti-Israeli? — to paint a portrait and show it in a wide audience, a portrait of a Palestinian girl and her perspective on reality?”