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Review: Rigorous ‘Tikkun’ probes deep devotion

Aharon Traitel in the movie "Tikkun."
(Kino Lorber)

A starkly composed, eerie tale of tested faith, the Israeli drama “Tikkun” takes you inside the cloistered world of ultra-Orthodox Jews, then burrows even further into the head of one young man and his peculiar crisis of spirit and body. Filmed in black and white but primarily evoking a mystical gray, and somberly stylized to an almost worshipful degree, writer-director Avishai Sivan’s movie is decidedly not for everyone. But for those who like a deep dive art film that caresses the dark and calls to mind the mesmerizing pull of Carl Dreyer, Sivan’s movie offers a powerfully enigmatic experience.

Its subject is yeshiva student Haim-Aaron (Aharon Traitel), the son of a kosher butcher (Khalifa Natour) in Jerusalem. Haim-Aaron is intense but distractible, and his devotion is considerable and off-putting even to his peers. He doesn’t sleep, looks massively uncomfortable with human interaction and fasts to the point of obvious weakness. He won’t even wash at home (preferring the purification ritual bath known as mikvah), although when Haim-Aaron does manage to step into the shower, he falls, necessitating a visit from the paramedics. When they can’t revive him after 40 minutes, he’s pronounced dead, until his father shoves them aside to administer his own frantic resuscitation, and Haim-Aaron miraculously awakens.

In Hebrew, “tikkun” means “rectification,” and though it hints at a Jewish belief in reincarnation, it typically has more to do with a kind of soul correcting that speaks to past sins and redemptive transition. So while Haim-Aaron’s return to his family and his school is accepted as a celebratory marvel, for Haim-Aaron it’s more of a metaphysical snap to attention that leads him to question the restrictiveness of his surroundings and the contours of his faith. Was he supposed to be revived? Is his mere presence an affront to a God who expected him to die? Or is this an opportunity to find a different path to holiness?

“Tikkun” has its own road too, which is a combination of serious inquiry, brooding horror and oddball humor. Haim-Aaron’s restlessness and new awareness of his body leads him to stop eating meat, wandering the streets at night, and addressing his paleness by staring straight into the sun, a scene more tension-filled than you’d imagine. His distraught father, meanwhile, fearful that he’s subverted the will of God in reviving his son, triggers a series of Abraham-tinged nightmares that involve a bloody knife and sometimes snapping alligators.

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Sivan’s depiction of essentially a religious zombie in a state of corporeal rebellion — given stern sincerity by the nonprofessional Traitel, himself an ex-yeshiva student who left the Orthodoxy — may sound like a critique of fervent Hasidim. But when the school responds harshly to Haim-Aaron’s slackened studies, it appears to stem from the same concern moviegoers have: something’s going on, and it doesn’t seem good. “Tikkun” never feels like an admonishment, only an austere probe set in a world maybe unprepared for so cryptic a psychological break. It becomes a literal and controversial probe too when Haim-Aaron’s spiritual walkabout leads him to an explicitly depicted taboo in the final act sure to put off many viewers.

Then again, the formal monochrome rigor and willful dragginess of “Tikkun” may alienate moviegoers way before that. As a personality puzzle, it doesn’t offer easy answers, and that’s by design. But there’s no denying Sivan’s image-making abilities, aided by Shai Goldman’s cinematography, or the movie’s prickly intelligence about matters of faith and doubt.

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‘Tikkun’

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In Hebrew and Yiddish with English subtitles

Not rated

Running time: 2 hours

Playing: Ahrya Fine Arts, Beverly Hills

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