Purity is a complex film about a complex topic. The traditional Jewish practice of family purity comprises myriad laws, customs, and attitudes regulating intimate contact between men and women. At the center of this ritual constellation lies a prohibition upon sexual and physical relations between spouses as long as the woman is menstruating or bleeding and for seven days following the cessation of the bleeding. This period of impurity ceremonially ends when the woman immerses, in a strictly regulated manner, in a ritual bath, a mikveh. As indicated by the film's subtitle, "Breaking the Code of Silence," women's feelings about the laws and practices of family purity tend to be shrouded in silence and secrecy. It is fitting that much of Purity is shot in dark rooms and streets, and that intense silences are broken up by conversations with women whose voices sound the harsh and un-oiled notes emitted by throats unaccustomed to speech.
The film is framed around interviews with three women, each of whom is in the midst of, or has recently experienced, a life change that is consequential in terms of the practice of the laws of nidah (menstrual impurity) and mikveh. Natalie, formerly ultra-Orthodox, has recently divorced and now rejects the purity beliefs that had been central to her marriage. Katie, an English-speaking Orthodox woman, has begun experiencing lengthy and irregular periods, which have caused disruptions in her mikveh immersions and so also in her intimate relations with her husband. Shira, the daughter of an Orthodox bridal guide (her mother—a mikveh enthusiast—teaches young women the laws of nidah and mikveh in preparation for their forthcoming weddings), is about to be married and has uncomfortable feelings about the mikveh. [End Page 263]
An early sequence in the film shows Natalie returning to the now-empty and bleak apartment in which she had lived with her husband and children before her divorce. Repeated shots of the bars on the windows (typical of Israeli apartments) evoke a feeling of prison. For Natalie, ultra-Orthodoxy indeed has prison-like features, denying women the freedom to decide when it is appropriate to bear children or to refrain from becoming pregnant; legislating a dress code that demands the concealment, with specified garments, of almost all of their bodies—for married women, including their hair; and constructing a wedding-night experience that is akin to rape for a woman who has never even touched a man before consummating the marriage.
Traditionally, a woman first immerses in the mikveh shortly before her wedding, in order to be pure on the wedding night. Shira, a lively and opinionated young woman whom we first see in the kitchen with her mother, grapples with her initial disgust and later disinterest in the whole issue of purity. For her, Shira tells her mother "it's just a game." In later scenes, we see Shira and her mother preparing her wedding dress and going to the mikveh. Finally, we see Shira after her wedding, wearing the hat demanded by Orthodox standards of modesty. Far quieter and more bashful than in the earlier scenes, she smiles and nods in agreement as her groom talks about how wonderful it is that the practice of family purity has elevated their relationship to a higher level.
The first time we meet Katie, her husband is preparing to depart for his military reserve duty. Katie lets us know how much she hates being separated from her husband when he is called to the reserves. Emphasizing that she makes a distinction between affection and sexual contact, she and her husband hold hands throughout most of the film. In contrast to Shira, who becomes more accepting of nidah and mikveh practices over the course of the film, Katie describes herself as being in a "questioning" stage. As her gynecological problems increasingly impede her ritual purity, compliance with the rules leads to prolonged periods of separation from her husband. We see her meet with an Orthodox gynecologist who tells her that in his line of work, he recites the traditional prayer "thanking God for not...