Eyes Wide Open (Einayim Petukhoth) (2009), Dir. Haim Tabakman

Ezri (Ran Danker) helps Aaron (Zohar Strauss) in his butcher shop and also gives him a new vitality.

Rating: 10/10

Haim Tabakman’s brave and moving film testifies to the variety of good films coming out of Israel in recent years, following on the heels of critically acclaimed films such as Lebanon (2009) and Ajami (2009). It also shares similarities with Yossi and Jagger (2002), another Israeli film that deals with a closeted homosexual and his younger more liberated lover. As well as taking up the themes of documentaries that have dealt with orthodox religion and homosexuality such as Trembling before G-d (2001) and for A Jihad For love (2007).

Set in Jerusalem, the present, the film focuses on the closed tight-knit community of Hassidic Jews where a butcher, Aaron (Zohar Strauss), lives a quiet and serious life with his wife and four kids. When a handsome youthful stranger, Ezri (Israel’s heartthrob Ran Danker) , enters his shop and later becomes his assistant, his life changes as he stops gradually falls for him after resisting his advances. His growing intimacy with Ezri arouses the suspicion of the local Rabbi who warns Aaron about his bad reputation, having previously been thrown out of the last bible school he attended, and urges him to get of him. Aaron ignores his advice and so invites the ire of other members of the community who threaten him with expulsion. At the same time two other members of the community, Israel and Sara are also being persecuted for their unauthorised relationship and they also pursue their relationship despite this disapproval. However, when things turn violent and men attack Ezri and throw a brick through Aaron’s window, Ezri realizes that he has to move on. A devastated Aaron decides to go into the lake which marked the first turning point in their relationship and submerges himself, possibly committing suicide.

Eyes Wide Open opens by showing Mea Shearim in Jerusalem (though due to the inevitable disapproval of the Hassidic community it was mostly filmed in Jaffa and Tel Aviv), where the closed Hasidic community live in drab grey colours (all credit to cinematographer Axel Schneppat, whose camera also highlights the sense being enclosed in this small neighborhood with it’s narrow alleys). It is pouring down with rain and a notice on the gates of Aaron’s butcher shop announces someone’s death, economically setting the tone. Aaron marks a lonely figure as he opens his butcher shop. And it at this early point in the film that Ezri, a handsome young stranger enters in from the rain looking for a job. An entrance that recalls many a film noir and suggests the danger lurking in his character to this morally fastidious community. Aaron is at first wary of the assertive and forward Ezri. But when he sees that he has nowhere to go he decides to take him in as an assistant.

The contrast between Ezri’s youthful sense of freedom and independence is then deftly compared to Aaron’s resigned austerity. While Ezri gropes and kisses a former lover in an alleyway, Aaron is seen arguing with a senior Rabbi (Tzahi Grad) about how religious life is not about enjoying life but about overcoming the difficulties of being a “slave to God”.

It is only when Aaron is tempted away from Jerusalem for a swim in a lake that he starts to loosen up, eventually (literally and symbolically) taking off his religious clothing to join the naked and uninhibited Ezri, and for what seems the first time having fun. But his growing affection for Ezri still has to overcome his religious convictions; when Ezri first tries to kiss Aaron he tells him that this is just a test of their faith that they must pass. When he eventually succumbs to his desire for Ezri it overwhelms him as a force that has been waiting to be unleashed for years, tearing out the buttons in Ezri’s shirt in his frenzy.

Strauss conveys Aaron’s slow awakening with great sensitivity, his expressions transforming from the perpetually dour, as lifeless as the meat he sells, to smiling and exuberant when enjoying himself with Ezri at home in sing-alongs or in local bible meetings. As he tells the appalled Rabbi when he appeals to him to disassociate himself from Ezri, “I was dead and now I’m alive.”

The rising vitriol that the community rains down upon Ezri and Aaron is also foreshadowed in their anger towards another couple in the community, Sara and Israel, the offence being that Israel is a layabout. It is clear then that Ezri’s and Aaron’s relationship hardly stands a chance and Ezri must go. That Aaron continues to endure the threats and bricks through windows is testament to the strength of feelings that have survived long imprisonment, whilst also showing how orthodox religion fails to address basic human needs. The ending suggests further that without love life can become unbearable, a iimessage that everyone regardless of their religion should get.


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