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by Ralph Seliger
Reviewed in this essay: Tikkun, a new film by Avishai Sivan.
TIKKUN is a well-made, well-acted film that’s difficult to watch -- at times painfully so. It is not about the kind of social change that the kabbalistic term, tikkun olam, has come to mean in Jewish liberal circles. Instead, the film is about the internal process of an individual striving for moral improvement or correction.
Set in Jerusalem, Tikkun runs for a very long, slow-moving two hours, and is artfully filmed in black and white. Color would have detracted from the stark plot of a young khasidic man falling apart as his natural curiosity about life and his body, and especially his sensual urges, find no approved outlet in a community steeped in a rigidly narrow notion of “modesty” that represses sensual gratification. Even the simple effort of the central character, Haim-Aaron, to open a window, roll up his sleeves and feel the sun’s warmth on his skin is immediately seen as deviant.
Haim-Aaron is already being torn apart by the struggle between his biological urges and the moral strictures of his culture when his obsessive fasting triggers a physical collapse. Miraculously, his father revives him after the paramedics have given up. But seeing this literally as a miracle, as devoutly religious people would, his community comes to interpret Haim-Aaron’s resuscitation as having subverted God’s will -- and to view the young man’s “strange” behavior as a consequence.
THERE ARE some small instances of humor, including in at least one of the surrealistic dream sequences. The interactions between Haim-Aaron and his younger brother are genuinely sweet.
One can feel for the bleakness of his father’s daily grind as a shokhet, a kosher ritual slaughterer. On the other hand, he is a good provider for his family; their Jerusalem apartment seems more than adequate, and he owns a car. It’s also clear that he and his wife love their son and his four siblings.
With the exception of one scene of khasidic men dancing, there is no music and the dialogue is scant. Camera-work predominates, most of it stark, and much of it painful and even jarring — whether of a cow being rendered into meat, or of Haim-Aaron’s digital violation of a woman’s corpse, and some other scenes of frontal nudity.
It’s easy to regard this film as having an anti-khasidic agenda, but it should not be dismissed as propaganda. The film, unfortunately, does not explore the number one problem of the ultra-Orthodox in Israel — that most are not being educated for productive roles in a modern society.
DURING A CASTING process that lasted eighteen months, the director Avishai Sivan decided that he could not accurately recreate the lives of khasidim with non-religious professional actors. Aharon Traitel responded to an advertisement for former khasidim to try out for Tikkun, and he gradually convinced the director that he was right for the part of Haim-Aaron by suggesting some script changes and converting some scenes into Yiddish. In general, the dialogue is a goodly mix of Hebrew and Yiddish, as one might expect from Ashkenazi khasidim in the Me’a She’arim section of Jerusalem.
Tikkun opens in New York on June 10, at the Film Society of Lincoln Center and the IFC Center, with a national roll out to follow.
Ralph Seliger is a veteran editor, freelance writer, and blogger. He edited Israel Horizons from 2003 until 2011, when it was discontinued, and currently administers the blogs for Ameinu and The Third Narrative.