“An Atmospheric Netherworld”
The Hebrew word “tikkun” has many definitions and connotations. Its main use seems to embody the idea of rectification and is usually used in reference to personal and spiritual improvement or the desire to want to fix the world. There is also a religious meaning— a book of text from the Torah used for learning Jewish scripture and recitation on certain holidays is also known as a tikkun and it contains the writings of the Five Books of Moses but with vowels (unlike the Torah scroll) and is a good practice text for those who chant Torah directly from the scroll itself.
Avishai Sivan’s movie “Tikkun” plays with all of the meanings of this fundamental Jewish concept. The film is a modern religious parable set that is set within Jerusalem’s Hasidic community. It probes the rituals and taboos of this and as it does, it explores the intersection of faith, filial duty, and civic responsibility in contemporary Israel.
We see that an ultra-orthodox scholar is revived after being dead for 40 minutes. After coming back to life, he suddenly feels a strange awakening in his body and suspects that God is testing him. This is the story of a young orthodox Jewish man, Haim-Aharon (Aharon Traitel) who slowly loses his faith after a near-death experience. Shot in pristine black and white and with impressionistic visuals, director Sivan gives us Jerusalem at nighttime (reminiscent of David Lynch) –as a netherworld, shrouded in fog, where past and present exist side by side. The becomes a hallucinatory tale of urban alienation much like the films of Michelangelo Antonioni.
Haim-Aaron is a devout Yeshiva student who we see praying and fasting in the beginning. He is a quiet type who keeps things to himself. His father (Kalifa Natour) is a hard working kosher butcher. Bad plumbing in their cramped apartment causes Haim-Aaron to fall and suffer cardiac arrest while taking a shower and touching himself. EMTs arrive but are unable to resuscitate him and he is pronounced dead 40 minutes later. His father, however, is unable to let his first son go, continues on the CPR, and to everyone’s surprise, revives him.
This near-death experience is a both a blessing and a curse for father and son. The father struggles with the guilt of undoing god’s will by reviving his son. He falls into deep self-doubt and is shunned by many of his ultra orthodox community members.
For Haim-Aaron, being undead affords him a freedom to venture out of his community and confront his earthly desires for the first time in his life. Unable to sleep, hewanders the streets at night, hitching rides to anywhere that strangers will take him. Outside his immediate surroundings, he is in a completely different world: Jerusalem, a cosmopolitan city with just under a million inhabitants, is a wondrous and scary place for him and he meets many strange people and has a sexual encounter with a prostitute. These activities put a strain on his studies, family and community.
This is an unsettling film and this is accentuated by Haim-Aaron’s father’s recurring nightmares ofevil crocodiles in the toilet, putting a knife to the back of his son and dumping the body in a monster-infested ravine. Urban alienation and repressed sexuality figure prominently in the film and it unveils the ultra-orthodox Jewish community, which is seldom portrayed on film. This is not a flattering picture of a community that seems to be permanently stuck in the past.
Director Sivan and cinematographer Shai Goldman give us a Jerusalem that has the feel of a lonely, industrial town. With sparse dialog and strong visuals makes Tikkun an intense and moody film. The film feels like an ethnographic film movie shot by someone from the community it documents, managing simultaneously to keep a critical distance from the material while maintaining a certain credulity and wonder toward the proceedings. The world of Israel’s ultra-Orthodox is portrayed with empathy and insight, but some of the community’s cultural practices are called into question.
“Tikkun” is in part a lucid account of the bewilderment that the absence of a candid sexual education for members of young ultra-Orthodox Jewish community. It captures the perverse fascination provoked in this community by this taboo as the camera lingers on both male and female genitalia in graphic, almost scientific detail. Haim-Aaron is perplexed by his own erect penis, which he inspects with curiosity right before his near-death experience. This explicit link between sexuality and death is reemphasized later when he studies the genitalia of a recently deceased young woman. In a literal sense, these scenes are a commentary on the awkwardness of puberty and pre-marital sexuality in this community. There is no discussion of the body or desires and sets limits between the sexes. Instead of simply condemning the social practices of this insular community, Sivan shows us how mysterious the world must appear to one of its members. Haim-Aaron’s explorations of the body inevitably result in calamity, as if God were punishing him for his sins. He endures his transgressions of the community’s taboos by self-castigation. Having so firmly internalized God’s laws and what he perceives to be His commands, Haim-Aaron subconsciously wills this punishment, thereby physically manifesting God’s presence in the world. We are never sure if Haim-Aaron is simply mental, a pious man or some combination of the two. It is this ambiguity that makes it difficult to characterize the film as just a secular critique of a religious mindset.
Sivan captures a world where the miraculous and the mundane are separated by a blurred edge. Haim-Aaron’s father is a kosher butcher, and we see him inspecting ritually slaughtered animals with the same solemn curiosity with which his son inspects human genitalia. The father kills in accordance with God’s commandments, humanely and forever on the lookout for God’s approval. Haim-Aaron’s siblings treat bugs with the same profane reverence, carefully observing them before squashing them. These ongoing scenes of commingled investigation and slaughter emphasize the fine line between life and death in this world and we see that God is always silently present in the guise of human action.
One could read “Tikkun” as a commentary on the price of culturally ordained sexual repression, an idea that several startling instances of full-frontal nudity make difficult to dismiss. But there is so much potent ambiguity that such a straightforward interpretation does not fully work. I have no doubt that there will be many who will not find themselves charmed by this film while others will feel that it is a total experience. The fact that it has been winning prizes attests to that.