Israel (2015) Dir. Avishai Sivan

Being an Atheist I will never experience a crisis of faith in God, so I can’t relate to the protagonist of this challenging Israeli drama in that respect. However, I can share his sense of emptiness and lack of direction that I and countless others have felt in our lives on many an occasion.

Haim-Aaron (Aharon Traitel), a young Hasidic Yeshiva student noted for being extremely devout finds himself reaching a point of unrest, clashing with his Kosher butcher father (Kalifa Natour) over little things. One night whilst taking a shower, the faulty plumbing causes the water to suddenly stop then restart, catching Haim-Aaron so unaware he slips and bangs his head on the bath and is knocked unconscious.

Finally revived after 40 minutes by his desperate father when paramedics had given up, Haim-Aaron comes back from this near-death experience a changed man. His religious studies no longer excite him, he chooses veganism, and struggles to find his place in his Hasidic community. But this also gives him a new interest in other aspects of life and wonders if this is God testing him.

Tikkun, the Hebrew for “rectify”, is not a film that offers any answers, instead it ponders existential questions via this profound theological scenario. Interestingly, despite this and other films in his canon being about the Jewish community, writer-director Avishai Sivan has no devout leanings of his own. The inspiration for Tikkun came from two real life incidents that spurred his imagination about life and death not through any direct issue with religion.  

Sivan admits to being more of a philosophical observer when it comes to religion, so his approach to the story is theoretical in its inquisitiveness. It is likely however, that some might find parts of this film offensive but that is a casualty of exploring complex issue through art. For those of us with less reason to complain, Tikkun is still an enigmatic but often hard work piece to sit through because of Sivan’s unique vision.

Presented in stark widescreen monochrome, this doesn’t necessarily equate to pretension, adding an air of gloom and austerity to the minimalist production, and ethereal, almost oneiric veneer. Unlike his burly father, Haim-Aaron is not someone who readily stands out; a slightly built, bespectacled young man true to his faith and little else, he suddenly discovers a sense of ennui about his existence.

It is probably rude to say this but the Hasidic Jewish youth are almost comical in their appearance, with their unusual hairstyle, bespoke clothing, and array of hats, whilst the study session as depicted here is almost Python-esque; a group of bodies rocking back and forth or gyrating on the spot as they read the scriptures to themselves is an odd sight to behold and shouldn’t elicit a laugh from us heathens, but it does look silly.

Yet, this is part of the film’s educational value and it is clear Sivan has been meticulous in his research, thanks in part to his leading man, himself a former Hasidic Jew. If it achieves one thing, it is to underline why Haim-Aaron might want to question the way his life is heading. Following his 40 minutes of being dead, he, like anyone, does begin to re-evaluate his life but the accident also brought about other changes in him too.

Unable to sleep before, Haim-Aaron now dozes off during study sessions; deciding to respect the dead, he gives up meat, which not only upsets his father but Haim-Aaron was already wasting away from his fasting; better late than never, the outside world looks to be a fascinating place as does the opposite sex. This makes Haim-Aaron sound like a rebellious teen in the making but he is far too insular and repressed to lock himself in his bedroom with the stereo blasting out Black Sabbath at full volume.

No, Haim-Aaron keeps to himself, heading out at night when he can’t sleep and hitching ride with strangers to journey as far out of town as he can, meeting people and going to places and he probably didn’t know existed. There is a touch of pathos to a lot of this but like the film’s climax, it all comes literally crashing to a halt, yet it is through this that Haim-Aaron reaches his emotional and philosophical destination which he handles in his own clumsy way.

Meandering in pace, short on explanation, and largely free of dialogue, the film’s appeal is likely its striking photography, the greyish tones integral to reflecting the staid and immutable life of the Hasidic Jew. Amidst the drudgery of Haim-Aaron’s search for his identity, Sivan flexes his artistic muscles by throwing in the odd surreal distraction, primarily the nightmares Haim-Aaron’s father has in which a baby alligator pops out of the toilet and condemns him to hell for reviving his son.

As abstract as this sounds, it is possible to associate this with the overall narrative of the story since we are dealing with a world arcane to most of us. More likely to create uproar is a scene in the final act (you’ll know it when you see it) that has contention written all over it yet is both oddly touching and rather sad at the same time. It might be that Sivan is teasing the Hasidic community by suggesting abstinence and stringent regimes are to blame for such naiveties.

Whatever Sivan is saying, he had plenty of help from Aharon Traitel, a non-professional actor and former Hasidic Jew now ostracised from his family and community. A fragile, understated performance, Traitel has the rare ability to emote whilst appearing inert, as the weight of his erstwhile existence is almost palpably lifted off him during this cathartic experience.

Calling Tikkun an acquired taste is an understatement but I am sure arthouse audiences will find plenty to appreciate here, be it the enlightening depiction of the Hasidic lifestyle or Sivan’s esoteric presentation. It’s a murky, plodding, and often bewildering work, but extremely thought provoking.   

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