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Aaron (Shtrauss), a respected butcher and a family man in an Ultra-Orthodox Jewish neighborhood in Jerusalem, leads a conservative life of community devotion and spiritual dedication. Aaron's life undergoes a series of emotional changes following the arrival of a young apprentice (Danker) to his shop. Consumed with lust, the handsome "Yeshiva" student irreversibly transforms the intricate beliefs in the once-devoted butcher's life - leading Aaron to question his relationships with his wife, children, community, and God. Written by
What happens if you're a married man with children in an ultra-orthodox Jewish community in Jerusalem and you fall in love and lust with a beautiful young man? Couples counseling? A divorce and a move to San Francisco with your lover? No. Something much more dire, as we learn from this simple, powerful first film in Hebrew by Haim Tabakman.
You get a brief period of happiness. Aaron (Zohar Shtrauss) in fact tells his rabbi that he was dead before, and now he feels alive. A beautiful 22-year-old orthodox man named Ezri, (Israeli hearthrob Ran Danker) turns up during a heavy rainstorm at Aaron's butcher shop just after he's reopened it following his father's death. Aaron probably realizes the minute he sees Ezri that he is a temptation. But he subscribes to the belief that the man who lives successfully close to temptation earns greater favor with God. He's come to see life as testing, not joy.
Without much pushing, Aaron takes in Ezri, who's from somewhere else and seems to be a Yeshiva student in search of a Yeshiva, appears (to the viewer, anyway) to have arrived to look up a former boyfriend -- does Ezri represent fresh blood in the ultra-orthodox world? -- and needs a job and a place to stay. Ezri smiles; Aaron never does. Aaron's scenes with his wife Rivvka (Tinkerbell) are dutiful, affectionate, and incredibly dull. He pushes Ezri away at first, but as Ezri becomes a part of his life, learning how to do the work of a butcher, his attraction becomes stronger. After a number of physical contacts and a trip to the country to immerse themselves together in a lake, it's Aaron who comes after Ezri, wordlessly, after they've loaded a big animal carcass into the cooler. Tabakman and the writer Merav Doster create a world in which you know exactly what people are thinking when they only stare at each other. The values and the desire to override them are equally clear.
The way Aaron's community deals with misbehavior is illustrated by a women who works nearby, who continues seeing a man she loves even though her father has promised her to someone else. Aaron is called upon to go with a group to threaten the man and the woman. Aaron warns them that if the matter fell into the hands of the "purity police" they'd be roughed up and the flat would be turned upside down.
The beauty and the melancholy of Eyes Wide Open is that it doesn't glorify either gay experience or orthodox Jewish life and yet it coolly shows the beauties of both. You can see the closeness and security of the life, the simple joys of celebratory meals (at Aaron's house, where Ezri is invited for them), of joining hands and singing there or in Talmud class, where the men chant and bang on the table. Aaron's physical pleasures with Ezri are equally simple, and intense, with a passion lacking in his ritual under-the-sheets couplings with Rivvka.
Soon Aaron is missing appointments at home -- and not caring; closing the shop for no reason. There are no secrets in this community, and someone knows where Ezri comes from. He's a bad man, someone reports. "He was sent away from his Yeshiva. He did too many mitzvahs." Someone sees something. Threatening voices in the alleyway and the pashkavils (orthodox posters used as mass communication) begin declaring "there is a bad man in our community."
The film, with its simplicity, its drab realistic settings and its leisurely, Rossellini-like pace, achieves a kind of quiet perfection and memorableness despite subtitles that are occasionally out of sync and an obtrusively ominous electronic sound track. The material is explosive, and the filmmakers and the actors have known well enough not to mess with it too much.
The film, whose Hebrew title is 'Einaym Pkuhot,' premiered in May 2009 at the Cannes Film Festival's Un Certain Regard series. Screened at Cinema Village in NYC February 16, 2010, where it opened February 5.
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