I’ve seen two movies about the religious life lately, different from one another but concerned with similar issues. Thoughtful movies about religion are uncommon, so these are worth checking out.
A scene of sanctified slaughter launches the Israeli art film “Tikkun.” A tall, somber shochet (Khalifa Natour) prepares to slaughter a cow, offering the benediction after testing his knife’s blade on his fingernail. With one quick stroke, he cuts the cow’s neck. Shuddering in its death throes, the cow slides away and the man stands drenched in blood. The intersection of death and faith, corporality and spirituality is the locus of this astonishing film by Avishai Sivan. Winner of numerous awards at the 2015 Jerusalem Film Festival, “Tikkun” is not easy to watch, but fascinating and rewarding for the patient viewer.
In Judaism, the word “tikkun” refers to the concept of a departed soul returning to the world of the living to resolve an issue before moving on to the next world. In Sivan’s “Tikkun,” the wandering soul belongs to Haim Aaron, the adolescent son of the shochet. A deeply pious young man, Haim (Aharon Treitel) lives in the restricted world of Me’a She’arim, a place where one cannot sit in front of an unshaded window fully dressed for fear of being immodest. He rarely showers at home and dresses himself under the covers. His own body is as alien to him as that of a stranger, and just as fearsome. But Haim is a young man and not everything is under his control. He has glimpsed a girl in his neighborhood, and in the shower he thinks of her momentarily and gets an erection. In minutes, he collapses and loses consciousness. Despite the EMT’s working on him for almost an hour to no effect, his father insists on trying further. Miraculously, Haim comes back to life.
But is he the same Haim? This Haim cannot concentrate on his studies, sneaks out of the house at night, hitchhikes to Tel Aviv, wanders on the beach, and searches out women. Is it just that after his near-death experience, he realizes that there is a whole world he knows nothing about that he wants to explore? Or is something else going on? The person Haim feels closest to is his little brother. You will grow up to be a hasid, a truly pious man, he tells his brother. Why? Because you are alive.
Throughout the film, Sivan contrasts human and animal life. The cows in the slaughterhouse, insects in the apartment, crocodiles that come up out of the toilet. Is there a difference between these species? Is one life more valuable than another? Aren’t we all animals? Aside from the creatures, Haim seems to exist in a world separate from nature. The streets and roads he walks on don’t have a tree or a plant in sight. Haim doesn’t look at the sky or the stars. He is as cut off from the natural world as from his own body. The film reminded me of a story I read years ago by Sholem Aleichem about poor boys who are trapped in cheder all day, never able to run and play in the sunshine. Although they learn about the glory of God’s creation, they never experience it.
You can’t have a Jewish story about a father and son without echoes of the Akedah. Like Abraham, the shochet saves his son from death at the last moment, but the son is damaged beyond repair. He is never the same.
Sivan uses silence effectively to express the deep repression of the family in the film. They can barely speak to one another because so much is forbidden. We are not used to silence in movies and it can make us restless. Also, there are scenes of extended nudity and close examination of both male and female genitals. But these scenes are the opposite of pornographic. On the contrary, Sivan’s treatment is almost reverent. Our bodies are as holy as the rest of creation.
From the Catholic Perspective
Another film about religion and repression is “The Innocents,” a French movie that tells the story of a group of Polish nuns who are raped by marauding Soviet soldiers at the end of World War II and end up pregnant. Based on the real-life story of French doctor and Resistance fighter Madeleine Pauliac, the movie follows a Red Cross doctor (Lou de Laage) who comes to a convent in the middle of the night at the desperate request of a young novitiate. To her astonishment, she finds a nun in the late stages of labor, and she sees that several of the other Benedictine sisters are also pregnant. The mother superior (Agata Kulesza) is determined to keep the situation secret, frightened that the new Communist government will shut down the convent if they bring attention to themselves. She is also deeply ashamed of the nuns’ condition, and she snatches away the babies they deliver.
“The Innocents” recognizes that the tactical use of rape as a weapon is popular around the world in numerous conflicts, as it has always been. The soldiers are brutes, but the film suggests that the nuns conspire to give the weapon some of its horrid power by their shameful secretiveness. Director Anne Fontaine gives her film a dignified austerity and never sentimentalizes the nuns or what happens to them. The women are not individualized, however, so “The Innocents” is not as affecting as it might be. Still, we need to be reminded that the control and degradation of women’s bodies is not limited to societies we dismiss as backward or primitive. Rape as a means of terror in wartime has beenal as common in the West as anywhere else.
And Now for Something Different
When my brain needs a rest from all this deep thinking, there’s nothing better than some ridiculous TV, and summer is the time for it. I’m deeply enmeshed in the second season of SyFy’s “12 Monkeys,” which is based on a movie I didn’t see and has a plot that I couldn’t begin to explain. Let’s settle that it’s a time-travel story, which gives the creators lots of opportunities for funny costumes and period music. The characters, who are trying to back fix a humanity-destroying plague, move between the middle of the 21st century and the middle of the 20th, and spend some time in the 1970s too. It makes no sense, but it has a lot of humor and appealing performers, with a standout Emily Hampshire as a manic seer. She plays crazy like nobody else. Barbara Sukowa is excellent as the genius scientist who runs the time machine, and Aaron Stanford is an appealing protagonist. What can I tell you? You need some junk food to go with your veggies. I can’t wait for “The Strain” to come back and see what happens to the Nazi vampires and the old Jew who has been battling them for 75 years.