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Unclean

Julian Schnabel’s controversial film Miral, like this week’s parasha, is a meditation on impurity. But while the Torah decries the risks of impurity, the movie extols its virtues.

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Freida Pinto as the title character in Julian Schnabel’s Miral. (Jose Haro/The Weinstein Company)

This week’s parasha is a catalog of impurities. It begins with menstruation, ends with detailed instructions on the handling and care of tainted garments, and examines in microscopic detail a parade of lesions, sores, scabs, and cuts with which the Israelites, like all other transient desert dwellers, were sure to be occasionally afflicted. One needn’t be a rabbinic eminence to grasp the story’s inherent logic, which, reduced to its essence, dictates that one must keep clean or die.

But there’s another lesson we can learn from the parasha, one that defies its original meaning: While cleanliness might be next to godliness, human beings are, by definition and often by choice, neither godly nor clean, and any attempt to scrub them of their flaws is likely to be hazardous to their health.

This, I suspect, is something that Julian Schnabel grasps intuitively. The director of the much-maligned Miral—the film seems to have united Jews, Palestinians, and film critics, three of the world’s most cantankerous groups, in near-uniform derision—is never more profound in this film than when he gazes at the female body in various stages of defilement. When we meet Nadia (Yasmine Al Massri), for example, a young Arab girl growing up in Jaffa in the late 1960s, she is being raped by her father, a tragedy that will eventually lead her to suicide. The two scenes representing the beginning and the end of Nadia’s adult life are revealing in their haunting similarities. Both are shot from Nadia’s point of view: The first is of a bedpost moving up and down in the frame as the bedsprings creak, the second of the Mediterranean, its undulating waves eventually engulfing Nadia in a silent blanket of blue. In between these two shots, the Nadia we see is a woman struggling for survival. She weeps as she runs away from her abusive home, sweats as she makes a living as a belly dancer in a seedy club, and vomits when a minor infraction lands her in an Israeli prison. When she chooses to take her own life, we’re left with little choice but to see her drowning, at least in part, as a purifying moment, washing away all those secretions that clung to her flesh in life in one final, ghoulish baptism.

Nadia’s daughter (Freida Pinto), the film’s eponymous heroine, begins life—and her turn on screen—with a similarly sizable dose of bodily abuse. Arrested by the Israeli police on suspicion of collaborating with terrorists, she is refused the right to use the toilet and is forced to soil herself; Schnabel shoots stoically as the urine trickles down her pant legs and on to the floor below in a puddle that looks more like a Kandinsky than like human waste. A few scenes later, having been tortured, Miral is brought before a judge; defiant, she pulls up her shirt, exposing the bloody grooves her interrogator’s cane had left on her back.

Unlike her mother, however, Miral recognizes in her imperfections—mental and physical alike—the indelible marks of a life well-lived. She rejects the urge to purify, the same urge that condemned her mother to the deeps and her teacher, Hind Husseini (Hiam Abbass), to an asexual, apolitical life. Miral, if you’ll pardon the cliché, chooses life, even if life eventually means carrying her scarred self away to Italy, far away from the conflicted land and the sacrifices it constantly demands.

Such is the film’s glory. Those who cried out against what they perceived as its ideological and artistic imperfections, I believe, were missing the point. It is true that the film is a collection of fragments telling slivers of stories about broken lives; it is also true that it is not, nor does it aspire to be, an exhaustive account of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It is, in other words, impure. But therein lies the film’s strength: It offers its viewers life drenched in blood, sweat, and tears, life in bits and pieces, life that sometimes burns bright and is sometimes too dim to see, that is to say, life as we all live it.

After a recent screening of Miral on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, Schnabel and Rula Jebreal—who wrote both the screenplay and the thinly veiled autobiographical novel on which it is based—were on hand to take a few questions from the audience. Even before the first hand was raised, the audience made its opinions known—some walked out mid-screening, muttering profanities about Palestinian propaganda, while others wrapped keffiyehs around their necks and clapped loudly as soon as the end credits started rolling. But Schnabel appeared unmoved by the political theater unfolding in the movie theater; he sauntered down the aisle, grabbed a microphone, and sang along with Tom Waits’ “Down There by the Train” as it sealed the film’s soundtrack. When he answered questions—some of them contentious, some fawning, many banal—he did so with a smiling, straightforward manner. You might expect the director of such a charged film to hunch under the weight of his artwork; you might demand that he take a stab at explaining himself and his politics and his aesthetics. You might, in other words, demand purity. Schnabel offered candor; like his film, it, too, was delivered in a choppy, charming, and utterly engrossing way.

This week’s parasha, then, should serve as a reminder not only of purity’s virtues but also of its inherent threats. As we strive to rid ourselves of the profane and the imperfect, of the tattered and the soiled, we run the risk of losing with it life’s many layered wonders. Pure is good, but it is also very boring; let that be a guide to life and to filmmaking alike.

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Cyrtis Marik says:

Liel seriously needs some help…his anfractious ability to somehow cavort the most bizarre and perverted into the Parsha is a testament to how distorted modern Judaisim has become.

asherZ says:

Does Liebovitz really understand the Sedra of Tazriah? It is concerned with a spiritual ailment,Tzaraas, which requires the afflicted one to be put outside of the camp for seven days. The ailment we are told in the Talmud comes bcause of one of seven serious infractions, the primary being Lashon Harah, evil speech against another individual. How Leibovitz sees this as an “inherent threat(s) ” somehow leaves the reading wondering what he is talking about. Trying to shoehorn the Sedra to justify his unfortunate admiration of a highly flawed film, is quite unsuccessful.

David J says:

Another great example of Liel forcing his own strange point of view into the Torah. The greatness of the Torah is its ability to inform all Jews with its moral message. The smallness of Liel is his inability to be informed by the Torah but rather remain in his small, weird place.

MonkFish says:

Nice April Fool. If only…

“Trying to shoehorn the Sedra”….”Liel forcing his own strange point of view into the Torah.”

asherZ and David J, forgive me for parsing your quotes together. They both were apropos to my comment.

A dvar Torah can be a forum for an intelligent application of biblical text and concepts to contemporary life and times. In order for this to come to fruition however, the writer must formulate a coherent discussion of both the biblical and the contemporary. In his Friday dvar, Mr. Liebovitz has increasingly been pushing (shoehorn) his left wing agenda (own strange point of view) by making it seem consistent with the Parsha.

I appreciate a good dvar. I respect different points of views. I think that Mr. Liebovitz has written good dvars from his point of view.

This ain’t one of ‘em.

If Liel’s column disturbs you, then make sure you’re sitting down before reading Daniel Gordis’ latest: http://www.jpost.com/Opinion/Columnists/Article.aspx?id=214664

babawawa says:

Bottom line: the Scnabels of the world, with their self serving agendas, come and go, and the Jews remain. Despite their claim of genocide, there are more Palestinians Arabs in Israel than ever lived there, not to mention elsewhere in the world. That said, everyone has a story, and we might not like it, but it has to made clear that this is her narrative only, that there are millions of different narratives. Just look at this one as Scnabel’s booty call.

If you find being pure boring then either you aren’t doing it right in this filthy world, or you have attained heaven on Earth.

Jed Brandt says:

“Bottom line: the Scnabels of the world, with their self serving agendas, come and go, and the Jews remain.”

What kind of nonsense is this? Get out of the house! Meet some people!

Jed Brandt says:

I mean, we’d have to wonder who is ‘self-serving’ with that kind of talk.

Geoff says:

“Woe to him who thinks the Torah is just stories and ordinary words.” -Zohar. Those who think the discussion of tameh and tahorah is limited to priests and Israelites, menstration and corpses, are looking at the garment of the Torah and not the soul of Torah. I haven’t seen this film, so I don’t know how falicitious this drash is, but the idea that purity and impurity can apply to things outside what the Torah names explicitly is an application that goes back to Ezekiel.

Helen says:

It seems to me that Schnabel is saying that life is a morass of self serving impurities and desperate attempts at redemption from the horrors of our self serving and self defending natures. It is hard for anyone who feels threatened at the very core of his or her being to behave with an open heart and honorable care for the other. Sometimes the only salvation for those who realize this…. is an escape to Italy or the Yukon. Escape is only possible if one finds a way to cut off from or to deny one’s historical and cultural identity. Since such denial is impossible, all “escapees”, die an slower, more conventional life and death. ‘Life is with people’ and because this is so, those of us without the moral courage, perspective, and stamina of Ghandi and M.L. King and Rabbi Heschel and the Rav Kook, take sides and attempt to reduce the point of view of the other to impurity. Therein lies the great impurity of life.

dror ben ami says:

Am I missing something here? I haven’t seen the movie, but when I went to wikipedia it doesn’t mention anything about rape/incest or being tortured in prison. it simply says the story is about the formation of a Palestinian orphanage.

regardless, for me, the concept of “purity” in the Torah has to do with “not contaminating the teachings of God with the teachings of men”.In this article,”purity” seems to mean “a catharsis” and “washing away guilt”.

If palestinian women are indeed being beaten with canes and being forced to defecate on themselves, then this is wrong and israel should face it and deal with it. if it is not true, then mr liebovitz should ask himself: “why did I believe it?”

Jim M says:

Maria Goretti (October 16, 1890 – July 6, 1902) is an Italian virgin-martyr of the Roman Catholic Church, and is one of its youngest canonized saints. She died from multiple stab wounds inflicted by her attempted rapist after she refused him because of love of Jesus and her loyalty to the Ten Commandments.
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/St._Maria_Goretti

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Unclean

Julian Schnabel’s controversial film Miral, like this week’s parasha, is a meditation on impurity. But while the Torah decries the risks of impurity, the movie extols its virtues.

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