Eyes Wide Open (2009)

Eyes Wide Open

Forbidden desire in Jerusalem’s orthodox community, the love affair between two Haredi Jews raises eyebrows in Haim Tabakman’s Eyes Wide Open. And razes the temple.

Eyes Wide Open

Reb Road by Mark Wilshin

CAUTION: Here be spoilers.

Eyes Wide Open begins with orthodox Jew Aaron breaking into his deceased father’s butcher’s shop with a stone. It’s a brutal but fragile metaphor, which becomes increasingly poignant as the father-of-two falls for young Yeshiva student Ezri, their affair threatening to break open the chains of traditional orthodoxy. It’s not just illicit tallit-lifting though, as they find a new happiness and godliness in their love for each other – a love, of course, doomed from the start.

From the outset it’s clear this love won’t end happily. Unable to smash the temple of orthodox Judaism, the Haredi lovers have to content themselves with snatched moments of tenderness in the spare room of Aaron’s butcher’s shop. Their love may be hidden, but when Ezri coaxes him to a bathing spring outside Jerusalem, Aaron opens his eyes to a world (and a love) beyond the community’s jurisdiction for the first time.

Caught in a ghetto of prying eyes, the amorous duo, with their locked doors and guilty gaucheness, are suspected of having wandered from the path of righteousness. And as with good-time-gal Sara, they are brought firmly back within the straight jacket of orthodoxy; nomadic Ezri is exiled, eternally condemned to stay one step ahead of his tarnished reputation and Aaron on the brink of disgrace, is entirely dependent on his chayil wife to protect his good name, and turn this black sheep white.

With their eyes wide open to the confinements of religious tradition and the possibilities of love, the rumbled lovers suffer the threats and stones of outraged Jews in a despairingly Third Reich atmosphere of denunciation and window-smashing. While Ezri’s refusal to feel guilt is refreshingly modern, seeing no conflict between reciting the Talmud at shul and his dangerous liaisons, Aaron is perturbed by the question of how to square religious devotion and sin. For him, his longing for Ezri’s enlivening embrace is a temptation to be overcome, an opportunity to test his faith and through repentance to become closer to God.

Despite an open and vibrant bubble of queer culture in Tel Aviv, Israeli cinema is perhaps less forgiving. Like Eytan Fox’s Yossi & Jagger, there’s no room for gay happy endings in these hetero-patriarchal cultures of army and orthodoxy. Perhaps the best Aaron and Ezri can hope for is a slow slump back into peaceful anonymity, redemption through conformity and denial. But as tradition and queer love go head to head, the relationship between holy butcher and student takes on an optimistic grandeur, a love which awakens Aaron from his instutionalised monotony, a love which brings him awkwardly closer to God.

There are magnificent moments of incredible power – as Aaron thumpingly restrains Ezri’s first kiss the tension is palpable. The camera movements are sublimely orchestrated – when Ezri and Aaron bid each other a frustrated farewell, the lens dances between them crying out their stymied longing. Perfectly timed and beautifully framed, Eyes Wide Open is a rare joy. It’s a fireside-and-slippers comfort to know you’re in the hands of a master.

The lasting effect of the ahava that dare not speak its name in Aaron and Jerusalem’s Hasidic community is ambiguous. As he returns to the spring, his spurtive bathing fondly recalls Ezri’s joie de vivre, but is he not cleansing himself of that sin in order to return to the fold? Submerged below water, Aaron’s real or metaphoric death is poignantly understated. Either dead or dead to his world, he’s drowning in the expectations of his religion and his community.

With beautiful performances from Ran Danker and Zohar Strauss, Eyes Wide Open is a grand love story that goes well beyond its queer and Hasidic ghettoes. It’s a forbidden love story of oblique glances and spying eyes, a powerful smouldering love, which ultimately is unable to explode the sacred fortresses of tradition and religion. Perhaps with a little kindling from beyond the ghetto, these walls can still come tumbling down.

Eyes Wide Open is released in the UK on 14th May 2010.

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