Thursday, 7 March 2013

Eyes Wide Open

Eyes Wide Open

Opening with a too-long sequence in which a man tries to open a padlock by battering it into submission with a rock, Eyes Wide Open metaphorically does the same to its audience with its overly sensitive portrayal of an illicit gay affair within Jerusalem’s mega-Orthodox Haredi Jewish community. 

When handsome, homeless young scripture student Ezri (Ran Danker) shelters from the rain in Aaron’s (Zohar Strauss) butcher’s shop, the taciturn butcher offers the younger man a job as his apprentice and a roof over his head in the form of the shop’s back room. Quicker than you can say “Oy vey”, the two men are sneaking soulful glances at each other during devotional prayers and doing more than stock-taking together in the evenings as things turn decidedly Brokeback. But Aaron’s a married family man and his wife and their tight-knit, conformist community are getting increasingly suspicious of his relationship with his young assistant. It’s not long before the local self-appointed moral guardians start making their disapproval felt…

With its deep conservatism, strictly regimented sexual segregation and inherent homoeroticism (those leather binding straps the guys sport and the same-sex purification immersions? Come on…) there’s probably a good film waiting to be made about the conflict between desire, passion and Orthodox Judaism, but this isn’t it. Ponderous and pedestrian, Eyes Wide Open manages the double whammy of making both Judaism and homosexuality look thoroughly unpleasant.

While far less confrontational than more overtly condemnatory films like Eitan Gorlin’s The Holy Land and Amos Gitai’s Kadosh, both of which are deeply critical of the hypocrisy, rigid conformity and abuse that can exist in Orthodox communities, Eyes Wide Open still depicts the fiercely patriarchal, ritualistic society as a pretty hostile, unforgiving environment where privacy simply does not exist, nothing’s more dangerous than a secret and any perceived infringement of the community’s standards of morality, decency and behaviour is met with intimidation and brutality. Homosexuality is seen not as a sexual identity or even a lifestyle choice but purely as aberrant behaviour; an unnatural act that inspires the community’s confusion, fear, revulsion and wrath.

Incredibly tame by European standards, director Haim Tabakman’s handling of the relationship between Aaron and Ezri is understated and far too sensitive, perhaps in deference to the Orthodox community that will never watch this film. Strauss plays Aaron as a fundamentally unhappy man, stuck in a rut. Adrift after his father’s death, he’s struggling with his own mortality. His relationship with Ezri never feels like the expression of a long-repressed forbidden desire but more something to do that isn’t Torah-study, chopping meat or driving the Rabbi around. Despite a sympathetic performance from Danker, Ezri comes across like a predatory stalker; thrown out of his school, it’s implied, for his homosexuality, he has pursued the object of his affections to Jerusalem and when he’s rebuffed he simply sets his yarmulke at Aaron. He’s more a temptation made flesh than a character, particularly when enticing the older man to join him in a relaxing nude dip at a spring outside the city or showing him sketches of his ex. There’s just no sense of passion between the two characters, you’re never convinced that they even fancy each other let alone are willing to risk everything for a few stolen moments together. When they finally yield to temptation, surrounded by the hanging carcasses of the shops butchered animals, it should be a sensual crescendo, a much-needed and anticipated release. You shouldn’t be thinking idly of the food hygiene issues surrounding illicit gay sex in a meat locker or the schoolyard jokes you could construct later when recounting the scene. Forbidden love affairs should be sexier than this and, as they’re never exactly furtive about what they’re up to, it’s never in much doubt how the relationship will turn out

While the film creates a real sense of place, making the most of Jerusalem’s tight backstreets to create an atmosphere of tension and a sense of both physical and emotional claustrophobia, Eyes Wide Open never really engages with the rich social, religious and moral questions it raises. Nor does it answer the question of how Aaron makes a living when his shop only has two customers (and one of them is his wife) or how the lads manage to fit in quite so much nude beard stroking while running a small business. There’s rich material here indeed but Eyes Wide Open’s greatest failing is that it doesn’t know what to do with it and settles instead for giving us a predictable take on an age-old story.

David Watson

Haim Tabakman
Zohar Strauss, Ran Danker, Tinkerbell Ravit Rozen, Tzahi Grad
Merav Doster
Peccadillo Pictures
Running time

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