The Hebrew word tikkun has many connotations, chief of which is the notion of rectification, usually used in reference to personal and spiritual improvement or the desire to want to fix the world. It also has a religious meaning, referring to a book of text from the Torah used for learning Jewish scripture and recitation on certain holidays. Avishai Sivan’s Tikkun plays with all of the meanings of this fundamental Jewish concept. A modern religious parable set within Jerusalem’s Hasidic community, the film delves deep into the rituals and taboos of this insular world to explore the intersection of faith, filial duty, and civic responsibility in contemporary Israel.
Like Charles Burnett’s Killer of Sheep, a neorealist account of life in a Los Angeles ghetto, Tikkun feels like an ethnographic film shot by someone from the community it documents, managing simultaneously to keep a critical distance from the material while maintaining a certain credulity and wonder toward the proceedings. The world of Israel’s ultra-Orthodox is portrayed with empathy and insight, but Sivan nevertheless calls some of the community’s cultural practices into question. The story follows Haim-Aaron, a Yeshiva student on the cusp of adulthood, as he struggles to reconcile the confusion engendered by the conflict between his burgeoning sexuality and the expectations of his religious community. When Haim-Aaron almost dies from not attending to his physical needs out of excessive religious zeal, he begins to question his faith and seek sexual fulfillment outside of his community, leading to retribution that could be interpreted as divine.
Tikkun is in part a lucid account of the bewilderment that the absence of a candid sexual education sows in the minds of young ultra-Orthodox Jews. Capturing the perverse fascination provoked in this community by this taboo, Sivan has the camera linger on both male and female genitalia in graphic, almost scientific detail. Haim-Aaron is perplexed by his own erect member, which he inspects with curiosity right before his near-death experience. This explicit link between sexuality and death is reemphasized later when he studies the genitalia of a recently deceased young woman. In a literal sense, these scenes are a commentary on the exacerbated awkwardness of puberty and pre-marital sexuality in this community, which ignores the body’s natural desires and limits contact between men and women. Haim-Aaron’s trip to a brothel, cut short when he annoys a prostitute by attempting to get to know her, reiterates the mystification surrounding this natural act in his world.
But rather than simply condemn the social practices of this insular community, Sivan shows us how mysterious the world must appear to one of its members. Haim-Aaron’s explorations of the body inevitably result in calamity, as if God were punishing him for his ostensible sins. Or perhaps the suffering he endures from his transgressions of the community’s taboos is a form of self-castigation. Having so firmly internalized God’s laws and what he perceives to be His commands, Haim-Aaron subconsciously wills this punishment, thereby physically manifesting God’s presence in the world. The viewer is never sure if Haim-Aaron is simply a meshugana, a hasid (a pious man), or some combination of the two. And this ambiguity makes it difficult to characterize the film as merely a secular critique of a religious mindset.
Sivan captures a world where the miraculous and the mundane are separated by a razor’s edge. Haim-Aaron’s father is a kosher butcher, and we see him inspecting ritually slaughtered animals with the same solemn curiosity with which his son inspects human genitalia. The father kills in accordance with God’s commandments, humanely and forever on the lookout for God’s approval. Haim-Aaron’s siblings treat bugs with the same profane reverence, carefully observing them before squashing them. These ongoing scenes of commingled investigation and slaughter emphasize the fine line between life and death in this world, where God is always silently present in the guise of human action. Such moments sometimes even have a darkly comedic element, which, along with the ubiquity of bugs, lend the film an absurd, Kafkaesque quality by finding humor amid such inscrutable violence.
While there’s no overt reference to Arab-Israeli violence in the film, one senses its glimmer in the precariousness of existence in this enigmatic world, where malfunctioning showerheads and other technological failures result in sudden death. Haim-Aaron’s father has recurring dreams of alligators attacking him and eating his son, dead from a mysterious knife wound in the back. In lieu of the recent slew of knife attacks carried out by Palestinians against Israelis, one cannot help but interpret these visions as the manifestation of a father’s fears concerning the irrational violence that confronts his family, which perhaps God alone is capable of understanding. As an allegory for the violence underpinning everyday life in Israel, Tikkun depicts a world in dire need of fixing, with or without divine intervention.