Title: Eyes Wide Open
Director: Haim Tabakman
Starring: Zohar Strauss, Ran Danker, Ravit Rozen, Tzahi Grad
Distributers: Peccadillo Pictures
Country of Origin/Language: Israel/Hebrew (English subtitles)
Length: 90 minutes
Rating: 4.5 stars out of 5
A guest review by Leslie S
Summary: A beautiful and haunting story of duty vs forbidden love set in an ultra-conservative Jewish community.
Aaron, a butcher and devout family man in Jerusalem’s ultra-orthodox Jewish community, has his quiet existence interrupted one day when Ezri, a handsome young Yeshiva student, happens on his shop. Intrigued by the young man, Aaron offers Erzi a job and over time becomes his friend and mentor. The two men, working side by side, grow closer, and soon other feelings surface. As their forbidden desire for each other grows, Aaron begins to neglect his business and his family. But guilt, torment and pressure from the community lead him to make a radical decision.
Set in a Haredi (extremely orthodox) community in Jerusalem, the film opens in the rain with Aaron (Zohar Strauss) breaking the lock on his deceased father’s butcher’s shop. He hangs up a sign asking for help, and during another rain shower, a handsome young man, Ezri (Ran Danker), comes into the shop and asks if he can use Aaron’s phone. He makes a call to someone who obviously doesn’t want to talk to him, then enquires about the job. Aaron rebuffs him, but later on finds Ezri asleep in the synagogue and, being a ‘righteous man’ with a strong belief in the community and charity, he offers Ezri the job and lets him stay in the room above the shop.
Ezri is a student recently kicked out of a yeshiva (a Talmudic school) for doing ‘too many good deeds’. Aaron’s friend Rabbi Weisben (Tzahi Grad) warns him that Ezri is not a good person to associate with, but Aaron says mildly that Ezri helps him get closer to God because only Ezri can worship in the way that God intended Ezri to worship, and besides, isn’t the community obliged to help those in trouble? In response, the rabbi points out another ‘loser’, Israel Fisher, who’s in love with Sara, a young shopkeeper who’s engaged to another man. The rabbi says this kind of thing can only lead to trouble.
But Aaron, a taciturn, unsmiling man, enjoys the company of his beautiful new apprentice, and the two men grow closer. Ezri came to Jerusalem to be with his ex-lover, who now rejects him, and Ezri begins to fall for Aaron. Aware of the temptation, Aaron sees it as a challenge they must both overcome—“God didn’t create broken tools”—and soon friendship develops into lust, and then into love.
Aaron is married with children. At first his wife Rivka (Ravit Rozen) welcomes Ezri into their home, but then as rumours start circulating and the ‘modesty patrol’ stops by the shop to tell Aaron to get rid of Ezri, who’s seen as a “curse to righteous men”, Rivka becomes increasingly concerned about her husband and her family.
Meanwhile, Rabbi Weisman asks Aaron to accompany him and Sara’s father on an intervention. They go to Israel’s home and tell him to stop pursuing Sara. Israel says that he loves her and he’d sacrifice anything to be with her. Aaron tells him to be realistic—if he refuses to accept the decision of Sara’s father and of the community, the ‘modesty patrol’ will come round, beat him up and smash his home, and no one will stop them.
Despite this illustration of what will happen to him if he continues his affair with Ezri, Aaron can’t help himself. Tensions rise in the neighbourhood and finally violence erupts. Trust and friendships are torn apart, and Aaron and Ezri are forced to make a decision…
I’ll preface this part of the review by saying that I don’t know much about Orthodox Judaism beyond what’s presented in this film. Nothing is sugar-coated but neither is it demonised, and both homosexuality and the Haredi life are shown to have their own attractions and beauty. It’s a difficult thing to make a viewer sympathetic to two very different perspectives, and while first-time director Haim Tabakman doesn’t always manage it completely, he does an extraordinary job at creating something compelling and powerful out of a seemingly ordinary situation with ordinary people.
The characters of Aaron, Ezri and Rivka are all extremely sympathetic. They’re good people trying to live their lives, and it’s fate that puts them in each other’s way. I felt sorry for all of them at one point or another as the film progressed, and at the end I genuinely didn’t know which path I wanted Aaron to choose. He stands to lose either way, but then so do the other characters, and that’s the tragedy. Love is a wonderful thing but it can also destroy so much, and when you’re part of a community, any community, then you have to be aware of the consequences of your actions.
As you might expect, religion plays a major role in the film though it never beats you over the head. Both men are Haredi and Aaron in particular is extremely aware of his position and role within the community. He tells Ezri that he wishes he’d had the opportunity to study at a yeshiva, and he encourages Ezri to attend the Talmud reading classes with Rabbi Weisman at the synagogue. Knowledge and self-knowledge do not always stem from religious teachings, of course, and Aaron has his own opinions on some of the texts discussed. At one point, the rabbi says:
”He who dwells in abstinence is a sinner… God doesn’t want a man to suffer. He shouldn’t cause himself sorrow. Why has God created the world? To make it good for us, to ease our souls.”
Aaron disagrees: he believes that man was intended to face difficulties and hardships and must meet challenges. He sees Ezri as someone who needs acceptance, someone pure and beautiful and not unclean and evil as others say. The challenge is not so much Ezri but the external pressure of the community. The beauty of religious observance, the sanctity of a family and the haven of prayer is set against the hypocrisy of some religious teachings and interpretations. Perhaps the strongest scene in the film is when Aaron tells the rabbi that Ezri makes him feel alive. The rabbi’s shock is palpable and the scene is utterly heartbreaking.
Something I thought was particularly well done was the meat/butchery theme. There’s the obvious comparison of meat/flesh/lust, and it’s significant that Aaron and Ezri’s first kiss comes in a storage room beside a carcass on a hook. In a more subtle manner, meat is used as punishment later in the film. Aaron doesn’t eat a lot of meat or fish, and when Rivka begins to suspect that there’s something going on between Aaron and Ezri, she goes to the shop and buys a whole slab of meat, invites Ezri to dinner, then serves a huge plate of the meat to Aaron. In silence, and in front of Ezri, he eats it.
The setting and weather are almost characters in themselves, anchoring the film in ordinariness but also making the viewer aware that it’s a piece of art. The constant refrain of the rain, for example, which gives way to bright sunshine and then burning, almost judgemental sunlight, contrasted with the gloomy darkness of the night shots and finally, in the scene where Ezri is beaten up by his ex-lover, he knocks against a water pipe that bursts open, drenching him, thus coming full circle to when he came out of the rain, dripping wet, and first met Aaron.
Most of the film is shot in one neighbourhood, grey and drab and claustrophobic, and the cinematography has an opaque feel to it, brightened only by the figures of Aaron and Ezri. Emphasising this is the use of silence throughout the film, and looks that speak louder than words ever could. It’s very understated, very restrained, and all the more powerful because of it.
The ending is ambiguous and perfectly fits the rest of the film. Eyes Wide Open won’t be to everyone’s taste, but it is beautifully made and in a quiet, underplayed way it’s a powerful and extraordinary look at love and duty that resonates no matter what kind of community you live in. Recommended.
Trailer (with English subtitles):