REVIEW: DVD Release: Eyes Wide Open

Film: Eyes Wide Open
Release date: 20th September 2010
Certificate: 12
Running time: 96 mins
Director: Haim Tabakman
Starring: Zohar Shtrauss, Ran Danker, Tinkerbell, Tzahi Grad, Isaac Sharry
Genre: Drama
Studio: Peccadillo
Format: DVD
Country: Israel/Germany/France

Haim Tabakman’s Eyes Wide Open bravely tackles the issue of homosexuality amongst a community of orthodox Jews in Jerusalem. Here, life is meant to be lived virtuously and simply, so it’s a bold decision from Tabakman to make a film as uncompromising in its views and style as his debut.

Shortly after the death of his father Aaron (Zohar Strauss) takes over the family’s kosher butchers shop.

After taking on a good-looking young assistant, Ezri (Ran Danker) the local community began to gossip and Aaron faces a test to his faith as their relationship blossoms…

The film begins with Aaron re-opening his shop, dispensing with dead meat as the rain cascades down. It’s a quiet, grey opening and sets the tone from the outset as this quiet, static movie rarely changes pace or raises its voice. Into Aaron’s lonely world walks Ezri, a broodingly handsome student who is offered a job and allowed to stay in an empty room at the rear of the shop while he is taught the trade.

Things gradually becomes more tender as both characters realise that their relationship is more than that of teacher and apprentice, a fact complicated by Aaron’s marriage and the all-knowing community of which he is part. The restrained romance between the two characters begins with knowing glances, an occasional lingering look and then a failed kiss – Aaron sees this as a test of his faith and refuses to submit to temptation. It’s a tense scene with Ezri’s determination bordering on aggression – the violence of the attempted kiss is completely at odds with the gentle opening of the film and comes as a shock. Sadly the film fails to follow up on the promise of this set-piece and soon settles back into its sedate pace.

The first real example of physical affection between the two male leads occurs when they strip off to go swimming. Ezri sheds his clothes and his inhibitions quickly, Aaron is far more reserved, steadfastly refusing to look at his younger friend as his clothes drop at his feet. It’s nicely acted and cleverly directed – Aaron’s glance never falls upon Ezri until he is fully naked with his back to the older man. The realisation that he needs to get in the water, too, is written all over Aaron’s face, and his reserve can be seen to dissolve even as he enters the cold water still partially clothed... Eventually the temperature between the characters warms and they fool around, pushing each other under the water and wrestling one another. It’s a rare example of anyone having fun in the film – interestingly the only other scene of male characters losing their sense of sobriety is when a male-only religious study group sing joyously together following a meeting. The film would have benefited from more scenes like this – introspection is a difficult thing to convey on screen and Aaron is chiefly guilty of this. A character of few words, he is often difficult to read, particularly given the nuanced performance from Zohar Strauss.

As Aaron’s reserve slowly melts, so the relationship between himself and Ezri gradually becomes sexual. Beginning with a kiss instigated by Aaron in a walk-in refrigerator, the thawing of their reserve is so hesitant as to be almost unnoticeable until finally they reach this crescendo. The scene comes as a relief – finally the ice has been broken. Taking place in a cold refrigerator, however, it all feels rather clinical. The movement between the two characters is somewhat mechanical – it doesn’t lack passion but is oddly sterile and has little warmth.

Occasional discrete sex scenes hint at passion but are usually witnessed ‘after the event’ and thus give little clue as to how the relationship has developed: it comes as a surprise when Aaron explains to a Rabbi that his relationship with Ezri makes him “feel alive.” There has been little evidence to suggest that his life has altered dramatically up to this point – he still rarely smiles, and although he has taken to occasionally closing the shop to disappear into Ezri’s room with him, it’s still a shock to hear that his life has altered dramatically.

Aaron’s relationship with his wife is muted, with no affection and little dialogue. Almost all their scenes are played out in either the dining room or a joyless bedroom. As their marriage becomes more complicated, it somehow seems closer – it’s clear that there is genuine love between the couple despite the lack of warmth and the fact that she is aware of his homosexual affair. Their final scene together is beautifully played – almost devoid of dialogue, but utterly compelling nonetheless, as she cradles her emotional husband in her arms. It’s a shame that this relationship is not explored more fully as it has real emotional depth.

As Aaron’s home life becomes increasingly oppressed, so his personal and professional life are affected. In his tight knit community there are no secrets. Coded warnings and threatening voices in alleyways – “there is a bad man in our community” – become increasingly common as orthodox Judaism begins to strangle the fledgling romance between the two men, culminating in Aaron being forced to choose between the joyless love of his wife and family or the passionate Evri and the abandoning of god.

The film is delicately handled, yet remarkably restrained. The relationship between the male couple is treated tactfully and perhaps this is the film’s major flaw. It’s possible to be risky without being risqué, yet Eyes Wide Open is handled with too much caution.

Despite the grey, rainy backdrop against which the story is played out it’s hard to see a big enough change in Aaron to believe that very much has changed between the moment Evri enters his life and the film’s denouement – things are just as drab at the end and there is little colour or vibrancy even at the height of their relationship.

The film aims for a very niche audience and sadly there is little here of interest for those who are not interested in the study of Judaism. Despite being subtly acted and sensitively filmed, Eyes Wide Open suffers from the same lack of warmth which we see in Aaron, and will only appeal to those who have something invested in the subject matter. RW

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