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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.
"Eyes Wide Open" has a wonderful sense of sincerity to it. It's a
small, unpretentious film which manages to plunge to emotional depths
without being showy or sensational. This restraint imbues the film with
much power and conviction in telling the story of a family man whose
inner world is torn apart when he falls in love with a young man. What
makes this scenario unique is that the milieu in which this is played
out, is that of the ultra Orthodox Jewish society in Jerusalem. As with
all extreme religions there is of course no place for deviants from the
Aharon, the protagonist, is a deeply religious man searching for truths who has to face the truth of his own heart. In perhaps the most poignant scene of the film, he confesses to his horrified spiritual mentor that he feels he's truly come alive for the first time.
"Eyes Wide Open" is the debut feature film of director Haim Tabakman. It is unusual for a first time director to demonstrate such assurance of style and tone. What would make or break a film of this nature is the quality of the performances. All the secondary parts are well played, but it is Zohar Strauss utterly convincing lead performance which makes the film work. There is not one false moment. This makes the inherent tragic situation an extremely moving one to behold. Highly recommended.
I attended the North American Premiere of "Eyes Wide Open" at the 2009
Toronto International Film Festival. This is a somewhat provocative yet
understated examination of what it's like to be gay in the Orthodox
Jewish world. In his first feature, director Haim Tabakman, working
from a Merav Doster script, introduces us to Aaron (Zohar Shtrauss) and
Ezri (Ran Danker). Aaron runs a Kosher butcher shop that's been in the
family for generations. Ezri is an outsider, already under suspicion
for questionable behavior, who enters Aaron's world with possible
intentions beyond purchasing a hunk of meat. There's a joke there but
I'll resist. The cultural constraints placed upon gays, or anyone who
is different, are painfully drawn out as the neighbors decide what
actions to take. The Orthodox Jewish community sends in its own goons
(enforcers of God?).
This character-driven film is haunting and poignant. Like many foreign films, natural lighting is predominant. The cinema verité style, without regard to shadows, is much more powerful than images in traditional Hollywood movies -- provided the images aren't too dark -- a problem I've seen here with some films. The score is used sparsely, only to punctuate the more emotional moments. The pace is slow and deliberate, while long takes with little dialogue allow the actors to speak with their eyes, facial movements, and body language.
The collision of religion and sexuality is a common theme at every film festival. What is the meaning of restraint? Are we really being true to God if we destroy ourselves in the process?
Situated in the orthodox Jewish community in Jerusalem this debut is a
rare intimate view into a closed community where everyone keeps a close
watch on each other. It's about homosexuality this time but it could
have been about any other subject that is controversial. More than
anything it's about the pressure of a community that gives one no other
choice than either to bend or to break under the pressure.
Integer, honest and touching this movie tells itself by the images and not by an abundance of words. Silence gives this film the impact that it has on you. This movie is felt as much as it is seen. Wonderful, a gem.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Such cruelty is unimaginable, but so close to us. We are in a Jewish
community in Jerusalem, one of these communities that live by the Torah
a life totally locked up in that logic. A man gets married, has
children, works all his life, goes to the synagogue every single time
it is necessary, celebrates Sabbath, dresses the proper way, speaks
proper language, kisses the jamb of the door when he is coming in or
going out of a house, apartment or store. That's a very routine-like
life that does not accept anything that goes against this routine,
these rules, this pre-formatted life. If the man is a butcher his whole
life and his family's depend on the community that must be convinced
that he is pure, he is no sinner. And sin is all-pervading in this
community. The result is sad in many ways: it is absolute solitude
right in the midst and the heart of a human community, a solitude that
kills the heart and the soul because the only thing that this man may
desire is forbidden, and that is love, love from an equal, love from a
man, love from another human being made in the image of God. That
forbidden love is divine because it brings together two direct
representatives of God, sons of God, Adam and Adam, full equality, the
supreme desire of love, to love your equal, to love yourself in the
other and let the other love himself in you. But that kind of love is
banned by the Torah (Leviticus 18:22, "You must not lie with a man as
with a woman. This is a hateful thing." Leviticus 20:13, "The man who
lies with a man in the same way as with a woman: they have done a
hateful thing together; they must die, their blood shall be on their
own heads.") But at the same time the butcher Aaron who accepts Ezri
under his roof is then in a serious dilemma when the people around him
start being menacing and aggressive because in Genesis 19:5-8 it is
said: "They called to Lot, "Where are the men who came to you tonight?
Bring them out to us so that we can have sex with them." Lot went
outside to meet them and shut the door behind him and said, "No, my
friends. Don't do this wicked thing. Look, I have two daughters who
have never slept with a man. Let me bring them out to you, and you can
do what you like with them. But don't do anything to these men, for
they have come under the protection of my roof." And this means Aaron
has to protect Ezri. But nothing is that simple and Ezri who has no one
except Aaron will leave to enable Aaron to live in peace. But Aaron
will not be able to live in that peace. The end is sad, very sad. This
film is about that kind of bigotry against gay people, or even nothing
but gay desire in the name of a law that is in pure contradiction with
the famous Lot story that brings God's fire onto Sodom: the people in
Sodom did not respect the law of hospitality, and history repeats
itself. The people of this community did not respect the law of
hospitality either, but God seemingly brought his fire down onto the
host and the guest. Sodom upside down in a way, though in perfect order
according to the Torah in another way. There could be a third way but
it would mean to leave the community, wife, children. But we can wonder
if the departing Ezri and the departed Aaron have not done just that.
The film is great because it is delicate, slow and entirely
introspective to the point of making the story unreal, at least to our
eyes that are wide open and can't see no justice in that law of fire.
When one was stoned to death in Jerusalem in the old days, he had to be
thrown over the wall of the city, he had to dig his own grave in which
he was buried up to the shoulders and then the people could stone him
to death, at least that's how James, Jesus' eldest brother was
executed. Times may have changed but our stoning techniques are maybe
less brutal or bloody but they are just as effective.
Dr Jacques COULARDEAU, University Paris 1 Pantheon Sorbonne, University Paris 8 Saint Denis, University Paris 12 Créteil, CEGID
A simple story, gently told, in a stark setting of almost medieval
I'm middle-aged gay European agnostic from Christian background and found this film enchanting and entertaining although sombre and downbeat.
The 'purity police' were scary talibanesque types: you will comply or else. I did not know about such compliance methods in Judaism.
The intolerance towards the 'seducer' gay man was ugly, so far removed from secular/reform attitudes around me.
The main character (the butcher Aaron) was unfulfilled after siring four children and still having a loving and beautiful wife, felt 'dead inside'.
But was that from the recent loss of his father, or some other reasons than just lust?
Eyes Wide Open is the fantastically well played drama, eventually
coming to mutate into a tale of taboo romance, of two men of differing
ages and places in life formulating a bond that is much to the
acknowledged risk of either party; the suspicion of those close to them
and the eventual disdain of everybody else in the community. The film
opens in the pouring rain, the back-streets of Israel acting as a run
down and somewhat decrepit setting for middle-aged husband and father
of two Aaron Fleischman (Shtrauss) to finally return to his butcher
shop following the grief he has suffered born out of the loss of his
father. Aaron is in a tough situation, the rain is heavy and there is
little in the way of protection; the padlock on the shutter to the
entrance of the shop proving an obstacle in the way made only possible
to get rid of by resorting to a last-ditch effort of brute force to
bash one's way through and in. Such an introductory situation goes on
to encapsulate that of the film's; a predicament gradually, slowly
getting worse before pushing mutates into shove and the conventional
methods of a particular process must be put aside to deal with the
scenario in a more pachydermatous manner.
Aaron goes on to take over his father's business; a butcher's business he helped his father out with here and there whilst much younger but a father now whose presence is strictly limited to that of memories and in photographs. Enter Ezri (Danker), a student in his early twenties whom has recently been flitting from place-to-place whilst trying to keep up with his studies; a man whom will come to play a large part in Aaron's life in the near future. Initially somewhat muted when on screen together, Aaron hires the young man as an apprentice in order to show him the basic routines of butchery; each hammer blow that comes down out of Ezri's swinging of the cleaver bringing about a terrific 'thump' on the wooden board. His freshness at wielding such a tool and the might with which he is operating it, what with his other hand in such close proximity, going on to neatly epitomise the danger the film will go on to carry - a 'close-to-all-but-disastrous-results' sensation which will surely come about if something goes wrong both in this new role and if certain revelations cannot be kept from the masses.
The men share some common ground just as much as the film enjoys establishing them as the binary opposites to one another. As a student, Ezri has committed most of his life to studying, whereas Aaron has done anything but although confirms that he would certainly like to. Ezri's wincing at the sight of what it is a butcher does is simply part-and-parcel of life to Aaron whereas Aaron's devout attention to religion is exemplified during a process of prayer in a local place of worship, something in stark comparison to Ezri who merely sleeps through such a gathering as everyone else of his ilk appear thoroughly into proceedings. When Ezri first enters the butcher's shop, he is rightfully wet-through due to the aforementioned rain; Aaron has had time to dry and the distinction between the men in their appearance in this regard strikes us. It is only much later on during which both men have arrived at a local spring, as their relationship develops, when the pair of them at once become as wet as Ezri was during that initial confrontation, the marking of Aaron in a similar manner symptomatic of his changing feelings and shifting onto a plain similar to that of Ezri in terms of akin homosexuality.
It is established Aaron is not a man whom is particularly scared to stand up to authority or a predominant voice, especially one within the community when he challenges a local Rabbi, who was an old friend of his father's, on certain theological views. Aaron's going against the distinguished norm here is later a characteristic he very much takes on to a further level in his coming together with Ezri. During another sequence, the verbal highlighting of Aaron's actions as that of dangerous or would-be scornful within the community is put across during a car journey; the Rabbi's pointing out of another young local boy and the subsequent labelling him as a "trouble-maker" is another example of where the nature of ill-advised relationships with others gets you within the community; his crime being the pursuing of a girl out of love with tendencies to stalk. As loose connections grow into greater unifiers, so does the film as the substantial and engrossing tale it is; Aaron's slow disenchantment at his family and life as a husband is highlighted in the bringing together of two single beds whilst with his wife, and yet it is inferred that very little happens. This could be seen in binary opposition to the two male leads, whom both share common ground in that when they initially meet, the pair of them are in the process of slipping out of a close bond or powerful tie with a gentlemen that meant a lot to them: Ezri's with a male partner we later hear him leave whilst on the phone and Aaron with his grief at loosing his father.
Director Haim Tabakman, running off of a Merav Doster screenplay, brings his characters together and explores in an absorbing and riveting fashion their back-stories plus behaviours before having that equality ruptured in a refreshing and dramatically involving way. Where many recent Isreali films have documented the past or certain other difficult, grizzly issues on the minds of Isrealis or Isreali communities, namely the Lebenon-set wars in films ranging from Beaufort to Waltz With Bashir, Eyes Wide Open explores another issue of immense controversy in the form of homosexuality and turning away from one's faith for personalised happiness within the said culture and does so wonderfully well.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
.....Passion.........then carried along through the mores and
strictures of a religious sect foreign to most of us, until we reach a
Devastating Ending. The devastating (only word that fits) sense of loss
and despair breathed by Shakespeare into a centuries earlier "Romeo &
Juliet" is in no way greater than the sense of loss and despair created
by the religious, non-accepting fervor we see directed at the two
"Romeos" of this film. It is enough to make any understanding viewer
(( Because, what do you do.......what can you do.....when in those first few instants of meeting, you know.....absolutely know, "The Temptation" is there?! ))
As an aside, if you're considering watching a movie like this, then possibly you are of a "certain persuasion." That being perhaps the case, please play a little simulation with me.....a little game of suppose or what if. Alrighty, then. Now, consider yourself and someone you've come to know, perhaps a longtime friend or fellow worker.....maybe a member of your club.....your pick-up sports group. You're in a little game of one-on-one, possibly out on a hike, swimming in a stream pool together, sharing a tent.....when.....Suddenly, you begin sensing a difference in your thoughts about him---maybe even feeling that something similar is occurring on his part.....OR, as in the case of this film's story, you find yourselves in a 2-person workplace, alone and away from the eyes and ears of others, just trying to get the job done. AND, in helping each other move equipment and work supplies around, you notice your fingers touching in handing items one to the other.....there is a brushing of arms as you pass. THEN comes a stillness and closeness in the space you're occupying with this other person.....and those sensations begin magnifying, pushing you into a mentally agitated state.....your eyes sweep around, but always return to that other person.....you have to move and nervously pace a bit.....all these things occurring as you feel your senses jumping into overdrive. Even more, there's a thrumming within your body which is growing.....growing; your skin nerve-ends begin experiencing, like, tiny electrical waves. Uncontrollably, your eyes are drawn, as by magnets, to those of the other person.....you cannot look away.....and it seems neither can he. It is now that you find yourself moving toward the one who has become the center of everything happening to you. At last, in this very instant, the two of you are reaching out with your hands, eyes locked.....FINALLY, they touch........And then it happens.
As for some specifics on this movie, at its heartrending core are a main and a secondary lead whose performances could hardly be bettered. They wonderfully play two men for whom the briefest and smallest of smiles seems the norm for expressing some bit of happiness in their closed-in existence. Yet there are rare in-public times (but only when they are together) when we witness instances of laughing camaraderie, which seem to lighten their societally controlled lives. And, yes, there are times we cry for them as we realize their moments of "bliss" in coupling are likely to be short-lived.
A couple of things to specifically watch for:
-- The most heart-stopping moment in the film comes as our main lead is being pummeled, shouted at and questioned by his own religious leader over what's seen as his "unacceptable relationship and activity" with another. Then, of a sudden, Aaron surges back, blurting out: "I WAS DEAD......AND NOW I'M ALIVE!"
-- A group bullying scene, as the film's last 10 minutes begin, will break your heart. To this viewer, it not only "symbolizes" the beginning of the end (in the very worst sense), but actually "is" the beginning of the end. Watching the eyes and body positions assumed by our leads in these filmed moments will tear you apart----for the realization hits us that a tearing apart is precisely what is happening.
There is only one DVD Special Feature to speak of---a Director Interview (possibly English not being a first language accounts for a less than smooth presentation of ideas). Consisting of a series of questions asked, they include: director's background (non-gay and non-religious individual), to include his filmmaking history / the philosophy and thinking behind this film / effect of low budget on sticking to script / political and national implications of the film within the Nation of Israel. Nothing is provided concerning interrelationship of the two male leads during filming----something that would have been of interest to, at least, this viewer. Sadly, there is no during-the-film commentary.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Eyes Wide Open is a really depressing film and not because of the sexuality and the suppression but because of the religious and cultural straightjackets that those people live in. I found it fascinating to observe the lack of beauty in the film. Everything was drab and breaking down. Everyone was in black or covered or not seen. They came alive through their religious ideology in a man's world - women were not present in the teaching and the camaraderie. To be a good man meant to work and have no joy, just read the religious dogma. This is surely an advertisement for why this kind of ideology causes conflict as it is not harmonious to life or the purpose of life = to find happiness (as spoken by one of the world's greatest philosophers - Aristotle). The woman was just there to care for the house and the family and to have children and be a sexual vessel to be honest. Then along comes a homosexual element and a man who challenges the sickness in the society and all the hangups. Of course it is very traumatic for any community stuck in the dark ages to have a 'heretic' in their midst, especially a gay one. Eyes Wide Open is a very good title because all the people in this film go around with their eyes firmly shut to life and its beauty and freedom (god given to everyone). Human beings cause all the problems, not god if it exists - how do any of us really know? The feeling of the sexuality is hidden and dirty and done in the midst of a butcher's shop with dead carcasses all around. The metaphor is vivid. However, the film is bleak and there is only way way out for the protagonist and it is a sad conclusion. Just throughout the film I was yearning for them both to break free of the cultural and mental straightjacket that was self inflicted - tear off those black outfits, throw the hats to the wind and get on an aeroplane to somewhere in the world where they both could live what 'god' had made them for - happiness and love. Felt very sorry for the wife though but she was a stuck sheep. There was no way out of this eyes wide open film - the cultural burden was sadly too heavy and that made the film leave a bad taste in the mouth in spite of its breakthrough subject matter.
When I think of gay cinema, campy titles Too Wong Fu or I Love You
Phillip Morris comes to mind, and so I am usually put off the idea of
watching. However Eyes Wide Open is something totally different and
quite intelligent. Here, life in a Jerusalem community is disrupted by
the arrival of a young 'unorthodox' Orthodox Jewish student who
proceeds to seduce an older Jewish Orthodox man, who is married with
four children. The narrative follows the progress of this conflicted
husband coping with what is essentially a midlife crisis, while having
to deal with the relationship issues of his neighbor's daughter, whose
open 'secret' affair with her boyfriend begins to mirror the problems
developing in his own life.
Employing a minimalist feel supported by a soundtrack reminiscent Soderbergh's Solaris and incorporating the use of washed-out colors and stark lighting to convey a bleak realism, Eyes Wide Open's over the top premise is dealt with realistically and intelligently, never once turning the story into a tabloid spectacle. Although a lack of dialog from the main characters makes it difficult for the audience to truly understand their motivation, the story still provides an interesting insight into the moral conflicts some individuals may face, while being true to their family and themselves.
The only beef I have with this film is its 12 rating. There is some full nudity and a sex scene or two, which should have automatically given it a higher rating. Although its tastefully done and not pornographic in the least... it can make for an awkward viewing experience if watched with kids or someone more conservative.
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