In Kabbalah, the word tikkun — roughly translated as “rectification” or “repair” — describes a process in which human beings can lift the world up through the performance of the Torah’s commandments. Although it seems intuitive, tikkun is a radical concept. It grants humanity the agency to overcome evil and transform it into good and, according to some teachings, the ability to repair a breach within divinity itself.
Tikkun also has its dark side. By granting humanity the power to transform evil, kabbalistic doctrine grants us a license to engage with it. Historically, this danger came to fruition in the Sabbatean movement of 17th and 18th centuries, and in the career of its founder, Shabbetai Zevi. It’s not that far from feel-good ideas of tikkun to messianic pretenders, doctrines of “redemption through transgression,” and weird sex cults.
Like the idea it borrows from, “Tikkun,” a black-and-white horror movie by Israeli director Avishai Sivan, alludes to the darkness underlying spiritual gifts. It walks a line between the holy and the profane, saintliness and sin, the godly and the demonic.
Set in present-day Jerusalem, the movie depicts a Hasidic ritual slaughterer (Khalifa Natour), his wife (Riki Blich) and their sons Yanke (Gur Sheinberg) and Haim-Aaron (played by first-time actor Aharon Traitel). A yeshiva student in his early 20s, Haim-Aaron is a little bit touched. He sits in empty rooms staring blankly into space, scribbles incomprehensibly in his notebook and stands in the bathtub staring at his erection like it’s some kind of alien fruit. In a different movie, someone might consult the DSM-5, but here, Haim-Aaron’s sickness is a spiritual one, and its cure not of this world.
Things get really strange when Haim-Aaron slips in the shower and nearly dies. In fact, he does die, but is revived by his father after the paramedics have given up. Despite this miraculous event, all is not well. After the accident, Haim-Aaron stops eating meat, telling his mother that “you have to respect the dead.” He discovers that for some reason he no longer needs his glasses. When Haim-Aaron gets home from the hospital, his father tells him, “you should be happy,” but Haim-Aaron has tears in his eyes.
Haim-Aaron’s father also starts having visions. In one dream, he sees his son lying in bed with a knife in his back, apparently the father’s own doing. In another dream, an alligator comes up through the toilet and tells him that “great fury is upon you” for obstructing God’s will. And there always seems to be a cockroach or two crawling around, a horror movie trope designed to make the viewer’s skin crawl. An air of menace pervades.
Such images, together with the movie’s stark black-and-white cinematography, are reminiscent of movies like Roman Polanski’s “Repulsion” or David Lynch’s “Eraserhead,” and put “Tikkun” squarely in horror movie territory. Yet Sivan, who won awards at the Jerusalem Film Festival and elsewhere for the film, retains an iron grip throughout. Rather than let the movie slip into full-on freak-out mode, he ratchets up the pressure with torturous slowness, exhibiting an extraordinary level of control.
In keeping with the ominous atmosphere, “Tikkun” is exceptionally quiet. Haredi life is a noisy affair, with the tumult of large families, the roar of the synagogue and study hall. But aside from a few heightened Foley effects — the sharpening of a knife, the scraping of a pencil — and sparse, sometimes inaudible dialogue, there is almost no sound. When the life of the community comes rushing in, as at a wedding, it makes us recoil.
Otherwise, the characters experience the world as if they’re living underwater. If Haim-Aaron seemed detached before his accident, afterward he becomes inhumanly so. He suffers from insomnia and starts hitchhiking to random destinations. In one scene, he sits in a car full of sleeping young men and a driver who listens to terrible techno music. When he’s dropped on the beach in the middle of the night, he encounters a pasty man in a Speedo jogging along the shore and listening to the same music that was playing in the car.
On another expedition, the driver takes Haim-Aaron to a dingy brothel, where they sit at a table covered in beer cans as prostitutes walk in and out of the room. Haim-Aaron is on the verge of going off with one of them, but gets kicked out when he asks for her name. He is not willfully rebelling against religion — when a woman picks him up and asks if he is on his “way out,” he replies, “God forbid.” But he is helplessly adrift, compelled to float wherever his strange fate takes him.
Before long, Haim-Aaron’s parents and teachers get wise to his delinquency and drag him before an elderly rabbi. The hope, presumably, is that the rabbi can help him or inspire him to change his ways. But no sooner does Haim-Aaron enter the room than the rabbi exclaims, “There are elevated souls that can stray to places that appear to be unholy. But in that place a soul can reach such heights that cannot be reached from even the holiest places.” Haim-Aaron’s aura precedes him.
Is this really Haim-Aaron’s destiny, to perform a tikkun through his errant ways, or is he just a lost soul stuck in a place it doesn’t belong? As the movie approaches its climax, the answer to this question becomes more and more cryptic, and the imagery more and more surreal. Whatever miraculous mission Haim-Aaron might have possessed seems to dissipate in the thick fog that envelopes one of the last — and most disturbing — scenes. And in the end, we’re presented not so much with a resolution as with relief. As Haim-Aaron’s father tells him, “I’m always amazed by the gentleness of a bed, to fall asleep, dream…” In this troubled world, perhaps that’s the greatest tikkun we can hope for.
Ezra Glinter is the critic-at-large of the Forward.