by Symeon J. Thompson
Jewish burial rites include the shemira, where a guardian is appointed to remain with the body of the deceased and watch over it until burial, praying for the departed and making sure everything is OK. A man who keeps such a vigil is a shomer and can be a family member, a friend, a volunteer, or even a person paid for the purpose.
In The Vigil, the shomer is Yakov (Dave Davis) an Orthodox Jew who is living outside the structures of the Hasidic community. He seems to be part of a group of young men and women who haven’t quite left their faith but are struggling with parts of how it is lived, and have decided not to be as distinctively counter-cultural as their community tries to be. There is a trauma in Yakov’s life that overwhelms him and it is this trauma he is trying to work through.
Yakov is struggling with money when his old Rabbi, Shulem (Menashe Lustig), appears with a job offer – be a shomer for a night and get paid. The Rabbi clearly wants to bring him back to the faith and thinks this will help. But he also needs a shomer, because the one that was there ran out terrified. And Yakov has done this before.
Reluctantly Yakov agrees to keep vigil for the deceased Holocaust survivor Mr Litvak (Ronald Cohen), a good man who became reclusive and focused on the darker sides of Hebrew folklore. Mrs Litvak (Lynn Cohen) wants Yakov to leave, but the Rabbi insists, so Yakov stays.
DEMON OF BURDEN
Mr Litvak became fixated on the idea of the mazzik or dybbuk, a Jewish demon that attaches itself to people in pain, becoming a weight they carry.
Art nouveau illustrator Ephraim Moses Lilien’s depiction of the dybbuk shows it as a skeleton draped over the back of a walking man bowing him down. It seems to be a parasitic entity that preys on pain and never wants to let go. The thing is, Mr Litvak believed he had one, and with his death it might be looking for a new host.
The Vigil is remarkable for the respect it shows religion in general and Judaism in particular, while not dodging the difficulties. Writer-director Keith Thomas wanted to make an Exorcist for the Jewish community, a horror film that takes its faith seriously, while also acknowledging, as those films tend to, the challenge of accepting this spiritual stuff in this materialist world.
You do not need any particular expertise on Hasidic Judaism and its lived experience to be able to identify with “living across two worlds”, and trying to balance beliefs and demands that don’t fit together.
At the heart of the film is a universal challenge – how do we remember our past while still moving towards the future? How do we let go of the pain that binds us without forgetting the lessons of that pain?
BOUND TO SUFFERING
How do we genuinely free ourselves from our suffering and what it can lead us to do, when we seem bound to that suffering, attached to it as if it were an innate part of ourselves?
Yakov finds release, for himself and Mr Litvak, through returning to ritual observances, but in the way that the ritual is observed as it is meant to be, and not just as a ceremonial.
Traditions exist for a purpose, even if only dimly understood. They are meant to liberate by providing structure and definition but can entrap when cut off from their source. This conflict can lead to rebellion and rejection, a separation from those things that have defined and formed a person. This may not be a bad thing, as not all traditions are worthy, but even so, it is a painful experience.
The closest the film comes to a solution is to suggest that maybe it is enough to live with and accept the dissonance. As for pain, repression only keeps it at bay so long, and repression means dodging what purification the pain might bring.
There are times when we must just sit with it and accept it and let it be. Perhaps, by standing vigil over our pain, we give it the respect it deserves, and the opportunity for it to depart in peace.
Symeon J. Thompson is a member of the Film Critics’ Circle of Australia (FCCA).