When I wrote recently about An American Pickle, I said that I was disappointed that the story couldn’t find an interesting way to address the core tensions of the Jewish-American life experience. The movie felt cheap and dishonest. The secular Jewish filmmakers, like Seth Rogen, couldn’t translate the life experience of modern Jewry without overtly mocking tradition and faith.
Low and behold, I’ve already found the best rebuttal of a film I possibly could’ve found. I went into The Vigil almost totally blind but vaguely knowing that the film was some kind of Jewish exorcism movie. I didn’t expect that I was in for one of the most intense, engrossing and quietly sad films I’ve seen in ages.
The film’s conceit, its titular Vigil, is based on an Orthodox Jewish tradition centered around a Shomer. The individual shomer, usually a friend or family member, is required to sit by the body of a deceased man and read Psalms to the body to protect it from evil until the body is given a proper Jewish burial.
Enter our lead character, Yakov Ronen is a quasi-lapsed Orthodox Jew who used to work as a Rabbi until he was beset by personal tragedy. When a former colleague approaches him to serve as the Shomer for a recently passed Holocaust survivor, he reluctantly takes the job and mostly abdicates his serious responsibilities to sit on his phone, texting his prospective new girlfriend.
As becomes quickly clear, a dark specter is hanging over the Litvik home as lights begin to flicker and a dark humanoid shadow begins appearing out of the corner of Yakov’s sight. We quickly come to surmise that the Litvik’s were being haunted by an ancient demon known as a Mazzik that wants to possess and stalk Yakov to feast on the pain from his tragic life.
It’s not hard to work out what the Mazzik functions as in the story. Both Yakov and the late Litvik are haunted by trauma from anti-semitism-caused deaths and carry lingering doubts that they were responsible for them. Just as most horror villains are the personification of some subtextual loss of control and fear of the unknown, the Mazzik is the specter of Jewish self loathing, bigotry and trauma that lingers over modern Orthodox Jews.
Over the course of ninety minutes, were forced to watch as Yakov slowly comes to terms with his situation, comes to understand the lingering monster’s power and comes to understand how he can overpower the monster by coming to terms with his identity.
In that, The Vigil is one of the most economical horror films I’ve seen in years. It’s over-reliant on cheap jumpscares but the beautiful cinematography does an amazing job building suspense and establishing the geography of the story. The entire film was mostly shot in one three-story apartment and it manages to use the location to its fullest by making us intimately familiar with every nook and cranny and of the building as it slowly ramps up the tension.
The whole story is ABOUT how fear and trauma cause us to collapse and retreat into the familiar so the house ends up doubling as an important aspect of the story’s themes. The story sets up early on that the Latviks almost never left their home late in life and it quickly becomes clear just how crippling and painful (figuratively and literally) it was for them to leave the house.
While The Vigil isn’t the most original exorcism movie in existence, it’s cultural identity and loaded themes impart great depth to an otherwise short and simple movie. The film is rooted in a deep sense of honesty and pain that expresses what it’s like to carry around fear and trauma with you as experiences. It translates the fear of death and hatred into something simple and terrifying.