Austere but fascinating, Avishai Sivan’s sophomore feature, “Tikkun,” spins a willfully enigmatic tale of a Jerusalem yeshiva student increasingly at odds with his religiously and culturally conservative milieu after a near-death experience. Shot in striking high-contrast, widescreen black-and-white by d.p. Shai Goldman, this mysterious narrative is nonetheless all gray zones in terms of moral and logistical meaning. The highly specialized item is most likely to reward patient, adventurous cineaste types, while those looking for a more straightforward reflection of ultra-Orthodox Jewish life may find it exasperating, even (in the end) offensive. Top prizes won at Jerusalem and Locarno fests should help it find the former audience when Kino Lorber launches its theatrical and home-format release later this year.
Something is clearly wrong with distracted, bespectacled young religious scholar Haim-Aaron (Aharon Traitel), eldest child of a kosher butcher (Khalifa Natour) and his wife (Riki Blich), even before he abruptly collapses in the family apartment’s shower. His insomnia and compulsive fasting suggest an incipient nervous breakdown. Still, there’s no explaining why he can’t be revived after being found unconscious in the bathroom — let alone why, once the paramedics have given up after 40 minutes of unsuccessful CPR, he revives under his desperate father’s ministrations.
This apparent return from death is viewed as a miracle by Haim-Aaron’s relatives, teachers and fellow students—virtually the only people in a life so tightly circumscribed that a chance encounter with a young woman in a building stairwell seems as strange and alarming as a UFO sighting. It gets him cut a certain amount of slack when his behavior grows more eccentric: At home he announces he’s renounced eating meat, and he continually falls asleep during class. Unable to rest, he wanders the streets at night, then begins transgressing much farther by hitching rides with strangers, adventures into the secular world that lead him to some rather shocking destinations (at least by his community’s standards).
While the full extent of such activities remain his secret, he’s nonetheless headed toward collision with the forces of strict orthodoxy that have ruled his life until now. That collision is literalized in a climactic series of events amid heavy nocturnal fog that viewers may find at once baffling and discomfortingly graphic.
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 to his credit, Sivan lends this tale so much potent ambiguity that such a straightforward interpretation seems reductive. The film’s stark surface simplicity (underlined by the lack of any musical scoring) and its jarring occasional leaps into surrealism (notably via the father’s recurrent nightmares) lend the narrative a haunting allegorical mystery. While those who fail to fall under its spell may find “Tikkun” a pretentious slog, many viewers will experience its deliberate pace and stark aesthetic as hypnotically economical.
Traitel, a first-time actor whose own background (youngest child of 15, self-exiled from the conservative Hasidic community he was raised in) seems all too eerily apt for this character, is riveting in a demanding role with little dialogue or psychological explication to lean on. Other performances are strongly naturalistic, with the partial exception of Blich’s rather too theatrically tragical mother figure. Tech/design contributionddds superbly fit an overall template of rigorous minimalism.