By Jason McBride (Seattle, Washington, US)
In pornography, erections are about as shocking as parkas in a ski lodge, but not even an adolescence worth of Pornhub will prepare you for Israeli art house schwing.
In Tikkun, Ultra Orthodox student Haim-Aaron (Aharon Traitel) faints at the sight of his own blood, guiltily kisses his prayer books after he knocks them onto the floor, and ducks into a foyer to shamefully hide his enjoyment of a snack.
The last thing we expect from this gawky goody two shoes is a shower chubby, shot in literary black and white, no less. If this protruding anomaly, so banal in streaming smut, doesn’t prove the power of context I don’t know what could.
This might be one of cinema’s Great Risqué Moments, but it’s not just for posterity: director Avishai Sivan wants us to share in Haim-Aaron’s shock, but for the “yeshiva boy”—as he’s referred to later in the film—the shock isn’t aesthetic, but moral.
As if in agreement, God (or faulty plumbing) blasts the boy with scalding water, and Haim-Aaron, already weakened from fanatical fasting, dies. The EMTs arrive, attempt CPR for 40 minutes, and declare him dead; but the boy’s father (Khalifa Natour) forces his way in and delivers passionate, desperate chest compressions, reviving his beloved son.
Haim-Aaron’s reprieve is hailed a miracle, but shortly after, his stern, equally devout father dreams a talking crocodile climbs out of the toilet and scolds him for obstructing God’s will. In the same dream, he recognizes one of his knives (he works as a shohet, a kosher animal slaughterer) in Haim-Aaron’s back and wakes up believing God wishes him to murder his son.
In Tikkun, religion is the source of all the characters’ problems. First God saves your son; now God wants you to kill your son (who was medically compromised by ritual fasting). It’s a biased assessment, but there’s no denying that history is littered with victims of religious zealotry. The film, not anti-Jewish but anti-extremist, is an allegory for pretty much any folly committed in God’s name.
You don’t need to be Jewish or all that familiar with Judaism to follow Tikkun, as Sivan economically doles out enough details of Orthodox life to get you through. Besides, fundamentalism is pretty much the same in every faith: sacred texts should be interpreted literally, anything sexual outside of male-female marriage is forbidden, and (apparently) men should smoke cigarettes, even at the hospital.
Tikkun’s climax leaves us with no doubt about the film’s viewpoint. Commencing with an Abrahamic sacrifice of cattle that results in a tragic mishap, it is a Rube Goldberg ending worthy of the Coen brothers, humor subtracted and replaced with repression-fueled perversion. This sequence may also end up as a Great Risqué Moment.
But don’t be fooled by all the genitalia. Tikkun is joyless. It has the bones of a Jarmuschian indie film, but like its kosher cows, its heart has been eviscerated. We see some attempts at humor when Haim-Aaron starts skipping yeshiva to take secret nighttime cab rides to observe the non-Orthodox world. A backseat of passed out clubbers and a mishap at a brothel are clearly meant to lighten the mood, but they fail to deliver that umami of farce and absurdity demanded by the moment. The aforementioned talking crocodile, having climbed through the toilet while the father was on it, is more creepy than offbeat silly.
The black and white cinematography only serves to heighten the austerity of its cloistered world. Intimacy between the characters is almost absent; you get the sense that everyone is alone in their heads, their sole companions guilt and judgments of others. Obviously, this is the point, but this severity makes the film so claustrophobic I can’t imagine wanting to watch it again. Even the bleakest Bergman provides the vicarious pleasure of watching its characters rattle the bars of their existential cages.