If you mix religious rituals with dark mythology, the result will be effective, and the story powerful in 90% of the cases. That is exactly what happens at the beginning of Keith Thomas’ feature film debut The Vigil (2019). The director, awarded in Toronto, SXSW, and Sitges film festivals, succeeds in telling the story of a young Jewish man called Yakov (Dave Davis) who is struggling with his orthodox Judaism faith, but because he is in need of money, he decides to accept a job as a shomer (Jewish practice in which a person must keep vigil beside a community’s member corpse). The analysis of this kind of traditional community is always interesting, also recently good depicted in German miniseries Unorthodox (2020).
When Yakov first enters the house, bad vibrations are all around the place. From the start, all the set is perfectly done in order to transmit the viewer the characteristic darkness of any mourning ritual. Rubin Litvak’s (Ronald Cohen) dead body is in the center of the living room, covered with a white blanket; beside it, Rubin’s wife (Lynn Cohen) who has Alzheimer's, which will be fundamental in depicting some obscure scenes that will take place during that night.
As the time goes by, Yakov is shown as a young, insecure, vulnerable man who has just decided to step out of the traditional Jewish community he belonged to, due to shocking acts that happened to him in the past... acts that we gradually start to discover. From that moment until the end of the film, the dichotomy between whether to believe or not to believe, in other words: faith and denial, will always be present. In this way, actor Dave Davis plays a fundamental part in depicting the character’s struggles with a brilliant performance.
Even though the atmosphere is already created, the darkness is invading the place, and the myth of the Mazzikim (an invisible, dangerous demon which can disturb anyone in their daily life) is introduced, which is a very good point considering that traditionally, what movies shows us about Jewish mythology is focused on the Golem creature, like in the German classic movie The Golem (1915) or its more recent adaptation The Golem (2018). Nevertheless, something doesn’t work properly in that context.
"The Mazzikim are not beings in the true sense of the word. They do not have a will, a connection to a higher power, but they are animalistic. These demons, they are parasites."
Maybe is because the demon is an archetype of any evil creature with a hardly recognizable face, and long, bony fingers, or maybe the sudden but predictable scares don’t help to maintain that well-made spooky ambiance.
Nonetheless, one of the greatest things the director achieves is to draw parallels between mental illnesses and paranormal phenomena. Yakov is constantly having an inner discussion, trying to convince himself that what he is experiencing is not real, and I think that fading the borders between these two worlds is perfectly represented.
Overall, The Vigil is not a bad movie. The story, based on Jewish mythology, is powerful and unknown for most of people. The best thing about it is that Dave Davis's interpretation is impeccable, you will believe him, and you will feel his emotions as yours. However, all that glitters is not gold, and the whole experience may be ruined a little bit because of the predictable and generic scares.
I give the film 3.5 stars on the Incluvie score, because the Jewish background is well depicted, and the filmmaker propose an inclusive way to talk about one of those orthodox, traditional communities. On the movie score, I give it 3 stars.