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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.

Liel Leibovitz
April 01, 2011
Freida Pinto as the title character in Julian Schnabel’s Miral.(Jose Haro/The Weinstein Company)
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.

Liel Leibovitz is a senior writer for Tablet Magazine and a host of the Unorthodox podcast.

Liel Leibovitz is editor-at-large for Tablet Magazine and a host of its weekly culture podcast Unorthodox and daily Talmud podcast Take One. He is the editor of Zionism: The Tablet Guide.