At first, Avishai Sivan’s “Tikkun” is a quiet, sensitive portrait of a young Israeli rabbinical student struggling with his beliefs, and then a talking reptile bursts out of the toilet.
That’s just one of several jarring moments in Sivan’s eerily provocative third feature, which combines the observant look at ultra-Orthodox Judaism familiar from “The Chosen” with the nightmarishness of spirituality’s darker side found in “Pi.” While shot in black-and-white to accentuate its ominous atmosphere, the theme is the exact opposite. “Tikkun” doesn’t just chronicle a crisis a faith; it puts viewers inside the tumultuous experience.
At the center of the movie is soft-spoken Haim-Aaron (Aharon Traitel), the son of an overbearing butcher (Khalifa Natour) who has strict expectations for his son’s piousness. With a disquieting tone enhanced by the chalky imagery, Sivan crafts a world entirely comprised of understated rituals and household routines. Haim-Aaron adheres to a set of daily expectations, from prayer to study sessions, with a robotic quality that suggests he’s never even considered the possibility of free will. All that changes with a sudden burst of sexual arousal in the shower, and a freak accident that follows in which he actually dies for 40 minutes. Revived by his father in a gut-wrenching scene that drags on for several minutes, Haim-Aaron finds himself at odds with his identity, and contemplating his role in the universe.
So begins a fascinating and at times morbidly unsettling odyssey, as Haim-Aaron grows distant from his relatives and eventually wanders beyond the confines of his insular community in search of a secular awakening. With its muddy visuals and haunting aura, “Tikkun” gradually shifts from tender to grotesque, and its depiction of a young man struggling against repressive forces evolves into a form of psychological horror.
Sivan’s command of the heightened dread is at once menacing and immersive: He starts with a near-anthropological dive into Haim-Aaron’s community, but even as the character’s perspective on the world widens, he doesn’t have the words to express his frustrations. When he tries, it’s heartbreaking. In one telling scene — which contains one of the few moments of truly introspective dialogue — Haim-Aaron contemplates the possibilities of looking directly at the sun, hinting at his developing ability to confront certain taboos.
While it drops hints of his burgeoning desires, however, “Tikkun” fires off into truly unnerving territory when Haim-Aaron attempts to act on them. Swearing off meat and running away from home, he gets his first taste of sexual freedoms while contemplating the nature of his rebellion. The aforementioned reptilian deity, meanwhile, assaults his father in a sequence meant to imply that doom awaits these isolated figures around every corner. And indeed it does, with a shocking finale that registers a bit too much like a gimmick to gel with the subtler narrative strategies building up to it. In a climax that makes the necrophilia in “Neon Demon” look fairly tame, “Tikkun” finally jumps the shark.
Until that point, though, the movie charts a fascinating balance between analyzing a close-knit religious culture and indicting its extremes. “Tikkun” won the top prize at the Jerusalem Film Festival last year, and it’s easy to see why — it offers a striking contrast to other visions of modern Israel and Jewish identity. It may be the wildest vision of ultra Orthodox Judaism ever, but it’s not an empty provocation.
Israeli cinema is often dominated by broader statements on national identity, as epitomized by the filmographies of Eytan Fox and Amos Gittai. “Tikkun” takes a more intimate approach, and finds something much creepier than the current sociopolitical climate. Hovering in Haim-Aaron’s mindset for the majority of its running time, the movie explores the way belief systems have the power to merge fantasy and reality until the two become indistinguishable in the eye of beholder. It stops short of diagnosing religion itself as a form of insanity, but suggests something much scarier for its beleaguered family — that no prayers can help a true non-believer.
“Tikkun” opens in New York this Friday and will expand to other cities in the coming weeks.