Eyes Wide Open (movie)

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Title
: Eyes Wide Open
Director: Haim Tabakman
Starring: Zohar Strauss, Ran Danker, Ravit Rozen, Tzahi Grad
Distributers: Peccadillo Pictures
Genre: Drama
Country of Origin/Language: Israel/Hebrew (English subtitles)
Rating: 12/PG13
Released: 2009
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.

Blurb:
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.

Review:
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):

16 thoughts on “Eyes Wide Open (movie)

  1. Raine

    Lovely review, thank you Leslie.

    I did a course on Jewish American Lit at Uni and discovered a whole society I knew nothing about. I particularly loved “The Chosen”, by Chaim Potok, which explored the Hasidic group in New York through the friendship between two very dissimilar children…..one of my favourite books.

    I hope I can get this from LoveFilm!

    1. Leslie S

      Hi Raine, thanks for the book rec – it sounds really interesting! I hope you can get hold of the film, it’s worth watching – and on a shallow note, Ran Danker is gorgeous :smile:

  2. Aunt Lynn

    Spot on review, Leslie. I saw this movie last summer and it stayed with me. While it wasn’t perfect and I had some issues with it (mostly around my problems with organized religion in general, which was not something I can blame the movie on and this unfortunately reinforced most of my opinions), one of the things that struck me was that the “modesty patrol” was nothing more than a gang, a band of thugs that are present in any other community, just under the guise of righteousness.

    1. Leslie S

      Hi Lynn, yes I agree – I’m not one for organised religion but I find it fascinating all the same even if I only ‘experience’ it vicariously through a film. The modesty patrol seemed so awful and I googled it afterwards and found that these things exist all over the place :sad: Makes you think, that’s for sure.

  3. tripoli

    Great review — I watched this movie quite a while ago, and thought it was a little dry but interesting. I did feel bad for the wife – the rigid boundaries of the society trapped her in a loveless marriage while her husband struggled with his own issues. Very poignant and well done.

    1. Leslie S

      Hey Tripoli – it’s funny, I was going to give this a 3.5 when I first watched it, but the more I thought about it, the more I realised how clever it was as a film so I kept adding to the tally and it ended up a 4.5 :lol: I felt sorry for the wife too – everyone lost something.

  4. Lasha

    Ah, the Haredim. Brings back memories of them throwing trash cans at my car and yelling at me as I drove by when I lived in Jerusalem. (Why were they throwing things you ask? Because I actually *drove* to my bf’s parents house on Sabbath.)

    It was also rumored they fire-bombed a non-kosher restaurant in downtown Jerusalem and burned it to the ground, which was a shame, because it had great food.

    So, my perceptions of this movie may be different than yours. But, I am still going to get it, if not for seeing my old stopping grounds in Israel.

    Thanks for the recommendation. You always find the most interesting movies!

    1. Leslie S

      Wow Lasha, that sounds awful :sad: There’s definitely that hostile element of ‘us versus them’ that’s depicted in the film, but it’s less controversial than I suspect it could have been had the director been so inclined to take a different direction. If you do watch the film, I’d love to know your thoughts on it.

  5. B.G. Thomas

    To tell you the truth, I was stunned you gave this movie such a high rating. Cinematography wise I’d give it a decent rating. The acting was good. The story?

    Everything I abhor about how gay movies were for decades.

    It is okay to make a gay movie as long as the moral is that it isn’t okay to be gay. Being gay is evil and you must be punished for it. Driven out of town, abandoned by those who promise to always be there, and hell, in this movie you have to go cleanse yourself in a ritual pool to be rid of the evil of homosexuality.

    I don’t see that the ending is ambiguous at all.

    The message is clear. Homosexuality feels good because it is evil and evil feels good and you must cast out the sin and live a righteous heterosexual life and the cleanse your sins away.

    What was it that Aaron said to his wife? “I did not bring this evil into our house?”

    Please forgive my passion, but I am actually upset by your recommending this movie. I am telling everyone I know not to see it.

    1. B.G. Thomas

      I think my upset mostly stems from the fact that M/M and site like this are about the beauty of gay love and happily ever after endings. Their are sites that won’t even review an MM story unless it has a HEA ending. The whole MM movement is about being tired of stories where the gays have to have an unhappy ending.

      While this movie was indeed well made, and beautifully shot, and the script well-written, it is a message I don’t want. I lived a long part of my life being told I was evil.

      1. Leslie S

        Hi B.G., thanks for your thoughts. I’m sorry you were upset by this review; I know what it’s like to feel punished for one’s sexuality and it’s something I don’t take lightly. As I said to Tripoli, originally I gave it a lower rating but the film made me think about a lot of things, and since it stayed with me for a while, I elevated the rating because I appreciate films that make me think even if they’re uncomfortable.

        I found the ending ambiguous not because of the ritual cleansing, but because Aaron was underneath the water for a long time and we never saw him come back to the surface. I agree that a lot of gay films – and books – for many years focused on the perceived immorality or ‘evil’ of homosexuality and that in many cases one character ended up dead as ‘punishment’. I understand that not everyone would enjoy or even want to see this type of film; I stated in the review that it wouldn’t be to everyone’s taste. However, I still believe it has merit.

        Different countries and cultures move at a different pace. I mainly watch non-Western, non-European films and many of them are in the ‘Brokeback Mountain’ mould, just like this film. Some are depressing; sometimes there’s no HEA or even a HFN. Despite that, often they’re beautifully made and thought-provoking, and when the subject matter deals with clashes within a culture, be it due to religion or otherwise, while I may find it painful to watch, I also like to think that the mere fact that a gay film can be made openly within such a country or culture is a step in the right direction. It wasn’t that long ago that even in Western films gays were depicted as camp or sinister. Attitudes are still changing all over the world; I believe we need to see where we’ve been just as much as we need to look at where we’re going, and a film like this can serve as illustration.

        1. B.G. Thomas

          ….and you have many many good points. But at a MM Romance book site, where romance is that thing…

          Never mind. We all have the right to an opinion.

          I was just left feeling so cold and angry I would not have been able to give such I high review. Compliments on the quality, but LOW points on the message it told.

          So much hate in the world…

          1. Wave

            Hi Ben

            Thank you for expressing your views so passionately about this movie. This site is doing what it’s supposed to do – allow the reviewers to review books and movies that move people to passionately defend, decry or applaud them.

            I would like to make a few comments. While this site does review books that have a HEA or HFN, we also review many other books that do not. Historical “romances” are reviewed on this site and many of them do not have a traditional happy ending because in those days, as has been said so eloquently by others, gay men were not thought to deserve a happy ending so their stories usually ended with the death of one or both of the protagonists. I’m sure you know all of the books I can mention so I won’t.

            Several months ago Feliz reviewed a book called Undefeated Love by John Simpson which generated a lot of heated debate because it was set during World War II in Nazi Germany. As you can imagine there were widely divergent views among the readers – some of whom were German, some were Jewish, others were Russian and some had opposing views regardless of their religious or cultural beliefs. I think the discussion was civil for the most part.

            Debates like this and the discussions that ensue are what make readers take a second or third look at a movie or book and make up their own mind whether or not it’s something they would be interested in reading or watching.

            I don’t believe in censoring gay romances whether or not the politics of a situation are uncomfortable for some of us. When this film opened at the Toronto Film Festival three years ago it was highly thought of even though there was a lot of debate, and this city probably has the most liberal views in North America about gays as well as a huge gay population. I guess what I’m saying is that despite its flaws the movie does have merit. Sure the views espoused in the film are not consistent with mine but I’ve seen the movie and like Leslie I think it has a lot of value if you’re interested in how a different culture handles gays and how they repress them.

            So in closing, I would say that the reviewers on this site can express their views without being concerned that I would try to censor them. Everyone’s opinions are of value even if I don’t agree with them.

            Thanks for expressing yours Ben.

            1. B.G. Thomas

              I hope I wasn’t rude or anything. I didn’t mean to if I was. Passion! Yes, that is what I was feeling. I hope that came across. I also thank you, Wave, for these words. Again I hope I didn’t come across as some jerk that needed calming down. (((HUGS))) to you both.

              1. Leslie S

                It’s absolutely okay, you weren’t rude at all! You stated your opinion and shared your thoughts and it’s always valuable for us to listen (or read, in this case!) one another’s views to enrich our own understanding :smile: One should never apologise for feeling passionate about something!

              2. Wave

                Hey Ben
                Of course you were not rude. As I said in my earlier comment, you were passionate, and I applaud anyone who is passionate because it’s so hard to find people who believe in something as strongly as you do about happy endings. :) That’s a good thing!

                As I said before, I welcome all views regardless whether they are consistent with mine. I love a good debate. :eek:

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