Avishai Sivan’s Tikkun – winner of several festival awards last year – opens with a slaughter. Not a vindictive homicide however, but the traditional practice of kosher slaughter of meat, accompanied by prayer. As customary of Hasidic Jews, this is just one of the many religious observances we’ll witness being carried out by the film’s two pious main characters – Haim-Aaron and his father. Indeed, their lives are consumed by such rituals, but their faith will be put to the test when a near-death experience disturbs their worldview in this solemn, uncompromising drama.
That pivotal incident happens to Haim-Aaron, who we quickly learn is attending Yeshiva school to study the Talmud and the Torah. A model student, he takes his education seriously, even taking on a self-imposed fast. His body becomes weak however, and one day he faints and loses consciousness. When the paramedics arrive, he is soon pronounced dead. His father refuses to accept this tragic twist of fate however, making one last desperate attempt at resuscitation. Miraculously, it works, as Haim-Aaron is revived. But neither man will be the same in the aftermath. Haim-Aaron quickly loses his enthusiasm for his formerly rigid lifestyle, while his father becomes fearful of divine retribution for preventing God’s will.
The ensuing crises of faith provide fascinating food for thought, as director Avishai Sivan immerses the audience in this world. Constructing a quiet, reserved atmosphere as befitting the characters, we’re reeled in to the subtleties of his direction. Every shot of the artfully austere black and white cinematography reveals something fascinating about these characters and their culture. From Haim-Aaron, we get a keen sense of his isolation, even within a communal academic setting or at home, which worsens as he becomes increasingly ostracized for his waning interest in Orthodox Judaism. Meanwhile his father’s state of mind is shockingly visualized through paranoid dreams about alligators delivering punishment from God. On a more technical level, the monochrome color palette constantly draws our eyes towards the artificial sources of light (streetlights, cars etc.) which provide a reminder of the modern world and its temptations. Indeed, although the voices hardly ever rise above a whisper, the images speak volumes.
As we follow the father’s storyline futher, the overall tone becomes gradually more mean-spirited (almost to the film’s undoing), but Sivan does find some levity in Haim-Aaron’s predicament. While he struggles to adjust to a more secular life and its pleasures (including popular music and sexuality), we see him enduring almost comical levels of boredom. In one scene, he even invites his younger brother to join him in the “fun” of pacing his bedroom to get rid of his many thoughts.
Such lighter moments are few and far between however, as the film instead focuses on the characters’ overwhelming guilt and torment. As such, the weighty themes do get oppressive for the audience as well, as we’re treated to many prolonged periods of silence. Evidently, a tighter edit would have improved the narrative immeasurably, especially considering the repetition associated with the various rituals. As it stands though, Sivan’s stark filmmaking style remains hard to shake, offering a potent cautionary tale on the pitfalls of religious extremism, as well as a fine example of evocative visual storytelling.
Tikkun opens in select theaters June 10, 2016.