The Vigil (2019)

The Vigil first published by Sight & Sound, September 2020

Review: Following the witchy theme of his short film Arkane (2017), writer/director Keith Tomas turns again to horror for his debut feature The Vigil, as he adds to a recent run of films – Ole Bornedal’s The Possession (2012), the Paz brothers’ JeruZalem (2015) and The Golem (2018), and Marcin Wrona’s Demon (2015) – which view Jewish history and identity through the prism of genre. The Vigil dramatises the processes by which myth and memory sustain trauma down the generations, while suggesting how this pernicious spell might be broken. At its centre is Yakov Ronen (Dave Davis), a psychologically scarred young man who has recently fled his Orthodox Hasidic community in Boro Park, Brooklyn, but now, unemployed, impoverished and confused about how to conduct himself in the outside world, is easily drawn back by his Rabbi (Menashe Lustig) to observe an all-night vigil (as a shomer sakhar, or hired watchman) over the corpse of Holocaust survivor Mr Litvak (Ronald Cohen). 

“What matters”, Yakov is told by Lane, who runs a counselling group for ex-Orthodox Jews,  “is we’re moving forward.” Yet Yakov and others in The Vigil are haunted by their histories. This retrospective fixation is encapsulated by Yakov’s principal activity of monitoring a dead man, and also by the Mazzik, an ancient demon which feeds parasitically on a host’s pain and is “damned”, as Litvak says in a video recording, “to look backwards” – truly a monstrous avatar of these characters’ prepossession with their pasts. Meanwhile the narrative here, part psychological part supernatural, comes with not one but three primal scenes – the dead man’s unspeakable concentration camp ordeal, the similarly harrowing experience of his wife’s grandfather in Kiev 1919, and Yakov’s more recent traumatic encounter in a New York street – which reveal the single source of so much lasting damage down the ages to be anti-Semitic persecution. These three men from their different eras have all, as Mrs Litvak (Lynn Cohen) puts it, been “broken by memories ” which “bite – and the biting never stops.” 

Yakov is a conflicted man, filled with guilt and anguish over his inaction during a violent event, and struggling to move on or forward. Accordingly his vigil is presented as a long dark night of the soul, in scenes which play as pure horror, assisted by Michael Yezerski’s nerve-shredding score, DP Zach Kuperstein’s expert shadow wrangling, and Matt Davies’ disorienting sound design. The insidious assault of the Mazzik restages sleepy (possibly dreaming) Yakov’s anxieties and evasions, eventually leading to a reembracing of his cultural heritage, a confrontation with his deepest fears, and a reemergence into the world as a confident Jew whose past is no longer a burden. 

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Synopsis: New York City, today. Ex-Orthodox Yakov, struggling with his new life and with PTSD from an anti-Semitic incident that left his younger brother dead, is drawn back to the old community by Reb Shulem to keep paid vigil over the cadaver of Holocaust survivor Mr Litvak. As things go bump in the night and Yakov comes under sustained hallucinatory attack, Mrs Litvak reveals that her husband was haunted by a parasitic Mazzik, which feeds on trauma and now seeks a new host. After failing to flee, Yakov dons the tefillin of Mrs Litvak’s grandfather, confronts the Mazzik, and exorcises the corpse. Liberated, Yakov sets out on a tentative date with fellow ex-Orthodox Sarah. 

Anton Bitel