Friday, June 10, 2016

Tikkun: The Anti-Inspirational Near-Death Film

Haim-Aaron could be the Orthodox Jewish Dannion Brinkley or Betty Eadie, but notoriety is the last thing he wants. He was not seeking grounds to question his faith either, but it happens just the same in Avishai Sivan’s distorted and disorienting auteurist vision, Tikkun (trailer here), which opens today in New York.

This is not your father’s Yentl. Viewers should be able to quickly figure that out from loving attention Sivan focuses on kosher slaughter practices during the opening sequences. Initially, Haim-Aaron is the devoutly obedient son his father always wanted. He studies at the Yeshiva with a zeal approaching martyrdom. Unfortunately, his most recent bout of fasting leaves him so weak a fall in the shower nearly kills him. In fact, Haim-Aaron is effectively dead for forty minutes. Yet, somehow after the paramedics give up, Haim-Aaron’s father manages to revive his comatose son.

Of course, nothing is the same for Haim-Aaron after his death. He seems like the same submissive wet noodle, but he now has trouble stifling his sexual stirrings. Even though Haim-Aaron cannot conceive of a life outside religion, he simply is unable to maintain his previous level of intense devotion. He even starts falling asleep in class. Soon, his father’s sense that something is amiss is amplified by his visions of a talking alligator slithering out of the toilet to chide him for interfering with God’s will. Yes, seriously. In fact, that doom-saying gator gets enough screen time to be considered a significant supporting player.

Shot in a strikingly chilly black-and-white, Tikkun a harshly intimate examination of cloistered alienation, punctuated by moments of absolute madness. Sivan never engages with genre cinema conventions, but the alligator scenes will still inevitably draw some curious midnight movie patrons. Frankly, Tikkun is so uncompromisingly realized, it is hard to say whether they will be disappointed or dazzled by its severity. However, even those closely familiar with Eraserheads and Audition will be taken aback by the film’s climatic transgressions. It is not just the Hasidic community who are likely to be offended by Sivan’s ultimate destination.

The formerly Hasidic Aharon Traitel (who also helped translate Yiddish texts for Sivan) is uncomfortably believable as the emotionally stunted Haim-Aaron. At times, we can almost see his muscle memories guiding his performance. Yet the real soul-plumbing, knock-you-back-on-your-heels performance comes from Khalifa Natour, as the tormented butcher. Despite his problematic decisions and an extreme faith bordering on insanity, he remains a deeply human and perversely sympathetic figure.

“Tikkun” is one of those conveniently ambiguous words with multiple meanings, including rectification and in some contexts, a form of spiritual reincarnation to right a past wrong or complete some unfinished business. However, Sivan’s Tikkun absolutely, positively should not be considered a Judaic analog to 90 Minutes in Heaven. It is a tough, defiantly bleak portrayal of Orthodox religious life and human nature in general. It is recommended on its considerable technical merit for hardcore cineastes, but general audiences should be strongly cautioned. It opens today (6/10) today in New York, at the IFC Center and the Film Society of Lincoln Center.