After Life

Tony Pipolo on Tikkun

Avishai Sivan, Tikkun, 2015, black-and-white, sound, 120 minutes.

THE HEBREW PHRASE TIKKUN OLAM literally means repair of the world. Strict Orthodox Judaism considers the term a call for “wiping out all forms of idolatry,” whereas contemporary, pluralistic Rabbis take it as a “commandment for people to behave and act constructively and beneficially.” At first glance, Avishai Sivan’s riveting new film Tikkun might appear to embody a tremulous tension between the more severe biblical reading and the less Orthodox one, even as it transcends sermonizing and moves toward domestic tragedy.

But Sivan, inspired by yet another interpretation of tikkun, complicates the issue. Relating to the belief “in a soul’s cycle or return to the world after biological death […] in order to rectify an unresolved issue,” this metaphysical meaning, suggesting reincarnation, accounts for the film’s mysterious air and powerful hold on the viewer. These qualities, in turn, are enhanced by Shai Goldman’s superb widescreen cinematography. Austerely composed black-and-white interiors are almost Ozu-like: still-lifes of rooms, hallways, unmade beds, and bathroom fixtures that ground the movie’s domestic and social realities. In contrast, exteriors of deserted streets, befogged highways, and futuristic cityscapes have an otherworldly aspect, awash in shades of gray befitting not only the increasing isolation of the protagonist but the spectral quality that suffuses the atmosphere. It’s not surprising that at the 2015 Jerusalem Film Festival Tikkun won not only for best Israeli feature, best screenplay, and best actor, but also for best cinematography.

The narrative’s main character, Haim-Aaron (Aharon Traitel), a young Yeshiva student, lives at home with his parents and younger brother. Striving to become a model Orthodox Jew while struggling with an emerging sexuality that seems foreign to him, Haim fasts to the point of fainting and spends sleepless nights at the school where, when not poring over religious tomes, he writes furiously in a diary kept locked in his desk. Though we never learn the words, we surmise that they record his anguish, particularly over the taking of life—not just human life, or that of the cows his father kills in the slaughterhouse where he works, but of the smallest insect. Refusing to eat meat, at one point he takes a slab of beef from the family fridge and hurls it into the garbage.

Sivan establishes his characters’ demeanors and the family dynamics so forthrightly that we are taken by surprise by the actual event that triggers the movie’s dramatic and thematic line. When Haim’s shower is interrupted by a break in the flow of water (thanks to a persistent plumbing problem), he looks down bemusedly at his fully erect penis, and just as he tentatively moves to touch it, the showerhead suddenly bursts forth with scalding water, catapulting him forward and causing him to strike his head and shoulder against the tub, and fall unconscious. Emergency medics fail to revive him and pronounce him dead, but his father, refusing to concede, continues CPR until, to everyone’s surprise, a pulse is detected. Haim recovers, and after a hospital stay, returns home and resumes his life.

Avishai Sivan, Tikkun, 2015, black-and-white, sound, 120 minutes.

Haim’s “miraculous” survival evokes the reincarnation theme, raising the question of how we should read subsequent events, although it is not immediately apparent what, if anything had been left unresolved in his life. His frame of mind seems to worsen as deeper, psychological conflicts emerge. For example, while it is difficult to ignore the sex=death equation implied by the shower incident, and reemerging later in the film, the link is also a concrete projection of Haim’s inner torment and a reflection of his vulnerability to the stern rulings of his faith. Falling further into a morose state, he becomes increasingly alienated from the student population, and acts in such a bizarre fashion that the elders of the community and school officials treat him as a pariah, eventually casting him out. While it is clear that no one understands him, it also seems likely that the purpose of his survival is precisely to draw attention to the injustice of his ostracism and the inhuman aspects of the community’s behavior—that, in fact, he is the messenger who brings unwelcome news, ignorant though he may be of what that is.

His mother (Riki Blich) questions whether he really goes to Yeshiva at nights. His father (Khalifa Natur), distraught by the behavior of the son whose religious devotion he once revered, teeters between frustrated anger and natural sympathy. Haunted by nightmares in which a crocodile from the sewer warns him that he has obstructed God’s will, Haim’s father, in images that evoke the story of Abraham and Isaac, tries to atone by killing his son in dreams and throwing his body over a cliff. Yet, so affected is he by Haim’s diary, which he scans in a desperate effort to fathom the boy’s thoughts, that, in an impulsive act of displaced sacrifice, he releases the animals awaiting death in the slaughterhouse.

Sivan’s approach is both lyrical and tragic, an indictment of rigid Orthodoxy but a compassionate acknowledgment of the struggle of those who live within it. That these include both the young and the old is clear from the very first scene as we watch an animal confined in the slaughterhouse pen, unaware of what is about to happen. Just before the father kills it, he intones, with more than a hint of forlorn resignation, a prayer to the “Lord who has commanded us regarding kosher slaughter.” It’s a scene that not only sets the tone of what is to follow but foreshadows the shocking, disturbing, if inevitable denouement.

As seems his wont, Sivan holds a number of surprises on the path toward that end, including Haim’s encounter on the road with a young woman, which is nothing less than heartbreaking—too moving and unsettling to give it away beforehand.

Tikkun opens Friday, June 10th at Film Society of Lincoln Center and IFC Center in New York.