Eyes Wide Open (First Run Features, NR)

The film’s central issue is not so much that of religious intolerance as of the decisions a person must make when choosing to live within a community defined by belief.

Aaron (Zohar Strauss) is a married man, father of four children and a respected member of his community where he runs a butcher shop inherited from his now-deceased father. Then one day, as if in a classic Western, a stranger comes to town and upsets Aaron’s settled existence.
The stranger is Ezri (Ran Danker), a rootless young man who awakens feelings in Aaron that he has previously refused to acknowledge. This story has been told before, but not from within the confines of a tightly knit community of Orthodox Jews in Israel for whom the concept of sexual preference does not exist. Men and women get married to partners approved of by the community and have large numbers of children; sexual behavior outside that context is a sin that cannot be tolerated.
Aaron and Ezri are both completely aware of this prohibition but, as the saying goes, the body knows things which the mind will never know. When confronted with what has become the obvious fact of their forbidden relationship, Aaron can only say, in essence, before I met him I was dead, but now I’m alive.
First-time director Haim Tabakman, working with a screenplay by Merav Doster, has created an admirably restrained film that allows us to observe the developing relationship between Aaron and Ezri and how other characters in the film respond to it. Particularly impressive is the performance of Ravit “Tinkerbell” Rozen as Rivka, Aaron’s wife. She is allotted only limited screen time yet creates a full character who lets us know that she knows what’s going on, and also that there’s nothing she can do about it. A scene of Rivka brushing her long hair, which is usually covered by a wig or a hat, to make herself beautiful for her husband (who is just not interested) is absolutely heartbreaking. The film comes to an ambiguous conclusion that is nonetheless satisfying as it expresses the impossibility of Aaron’s situation, yet refuses to bring the story to a neat ending.
Everything about Eyes Wide Open feels real including the Orthodox community in which it is set, in sharp contrast to the rather laughable depiction of the Brooklyn Hasidic community offered up in the more highly-publicized Holy Rollers. Tabakman’s film does not judge the Orthodox community as a whole, but presents it as a real collection of individuals with individual good and bad points. The film’s central issue is not so much that of religious intolerance as of the decisions a person must make when choosing to live within a community defined by belief.
Aaron’s community is not unfamiliar with homosexual behavior, but the notion of homosexuality as an identity is completely beyond them. Ezri’s reputation precedes him (it is implied several times that this is why he was thrown out of yeshiva) and various community members make statements along the order of “no good can come from his presence.” They see the situation as a problem that can be solved if Aaron will just send Ezri away (he’s been working as an assistant in Aaron’s shop and also living in a storage room there). This request/suggestion/ultimatum is made with varying degrees of forcefulness by the rabbi (Tzahi Grad) and a gang of young men who consider themselves enforcers of morality. The fine line between requesting and demanding is crossed in a scene in which the morality squad acts more like Mafia enforcers as they warn a non-Orthodox man (in his home, in the presence of his mother) to stop seeing a young Orthodox woman. Aaron is present on that mission and the parallel with his own situation could not be clearer.
Excellent cinematography by Axel Schneppat (the film is shot on location in Tel-Aviv) is an added bonus in this fine film that deserves to be seen more widely. The only extra included with Eyes Wide Open is a 24-minute interview with the director that covers a broad selection of topics, from his background as a filmmaker and the process of making this film to his political views on modern Israel. | Sarah Boslaugh

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