Reviewer: James van Maanen
Rating (out of 5): ****
Eyes Wide Open (Eynaim Pekukhot) made its New York debut early this year, as part of the 19th New York Jewish Film Festival, which was quickly followed by a limited theatrical release. This is the first full-length, narrative film from director Haim Tabakman, in which, as a co-writer, he worked with producer Rafael Katz, their “French connection” David Barrot and the film's original screenwriter Merav Doster. Together they’ve come up with a doozy of a movie about Israeli fundamentalist thinking and behaving.
An ugly film to watch (the settings -- workplace, apartment and "shul" -- could hardly be more drab and unappealing), Eyes Wide Open takes place in Israel's ultra-Orthodox Jewish community, in and around a butcher shop in which one of its leading characters, Aaron, labors and which, due to the recent death of his father, he now owns. Into Aaron's life one day comes the transient Ezri, a young man whom Aaron hires to help in the shop. (The only other major character in the film is Rivka, Aaron's wife.) Ezri is gay -- we learn this fact fairly quickly -- and Aaron soon finds himself attracted to the young man.
Though this attraction grows throughout the course of the film and is returned in kind by Ezri, the orthodox community, which permits no deviation -- certainly not one this deviant -- rises to what it perceives as a challenge to its very being, as does Rivka, fighting as best she can for her man and her life (the couple has four children). But passion, clearly new to Aaron though not to Ezri, cannot be easily halted. Though, god knows, Aaron tries.
This is one of the great strengths of Eyes Wide Open: How well it conveys how hard Aaron attempts to deflect and then prevent what is clearly happening. "We can refrain!" he pleads with Ezri, for this is what his religion teaches. "We can restrain ourselves!" This restraint builds and builds; when the explosion comes, it is overwhelming -- for both the characters and the viewers -- resulting in one of the more intense sex scenes in recent memory. And one, I might add, in which the participants remain fully clothed.
Eyes Wide Open is a broadside against fundamentalist thinking (and behaving), and does not end with the coupling of the two men. This only begins the suffering to come and answers the question -- Can the true array of human sexuality coexist within orthodox religion? -- in the negative. So effortlessly real are the performances of Zohar Strauss as Aaron and Ran Danker as Ezri, and so relentless yet believable is the screenplay in its setting-up and working-out of this face-off between immovable objects that viewers feel as if they, too, are held captive by the enormous constraints imposed by the fundamentalist community.
I wonder: Does a movie exist that shows the Orthodox community in any joyous light, particularly where sexuality is concerned? If so, let me know. If not, maybe it's time (If that is even possible without every character towing the highly constrained line that "god" has decreed). The new Eyes Wide Open DVD from First Run features only one extra, though it is worthy: an interview with the director.
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