Not So Open

The delicate subject of homosexuality within the Haredi world is addressed in 'Eyes Wide Open.'

eyes wide open danker movie 248 (photo credit: )
eyes wide open danker movie 248
(photo credit: )
HHHH EYES WIDE OPEN (ISR) Directed by Haim Tabakman. Written by Merav Doster. Hebrew title: Einayim Pekukhot. 90 minutes. In Hebrew and Yiddish. Check with theater for subtitle information. Eyes Wide Open is a simple, well-told story about the burden of being homosexual in the ultra-Orthodox community. At times, it is critical of this community, but it also paints a fairly balanced portrait of life in a somber Jerusalem neighborhood. In doing this, it creates a sense of the loneliness at the core of its main character, Aharon (Zohar Strauss), a butcher who is torn between his own sexuality and love for another man, and his desire to serve God in the way he has always been taught is correct. Director/writer Haim Tabakman should be credited for not oversimplifying this story. Aharon struggles with his sexuality because to give up his place in the world he knows would truly be a loss for him. It is a film about conflict and tradeoffs, not repression versus liberation. Aharon needs an assistant after his father, with whom he ran his butcher shop, dies. A young man, Ezri (soap opera star Ron Danker), who is in Jerusalem visiting someone, stops by and offers to take the job, although he has no experience. Reluctantly, Aharon agrees to give him a try, although Ezri is evasive about his life. He brings Ezri to visit his family, where his wife (Tinkerbell, who looks surprisingly authentic in her wig and drab clothes) serves him dinner and inquires when he's planning to settle down. It's all very pleasant, but as an undeniable attraction grows between Ezri and Aharon, everyone is affected by this passion. Traditional Jewish law is clear about this kind of love: It's taboo. Aharon tries hard to be a good husband and father, but he can't turn away from Ezri, who, it turns out, has had other homosexual relationships in the past. People begin to gossip, which brings a threatening visit from Aharon's rabbi (Tzahi Grad, currently Israel's leading movie villain), who insists Aharon must give up the relationship. This situation is tragic and it plays out in a way that captures the sadness inherent in Aharon's situation. At the core of the tragedy is that while Aharon has strong feelings for his wife, he is not only sexually attracted to Ezri, but is also in love with him. Clearly, the director chose the butcher shop as a setting for its symbolic value: This man who makes his living selling the flesh of animals cannot control the passions of his own flesh. I could have done with a little less obvious symbolism, but it works in the context of the film. Although this film gets far more of the details of ultra-Orthodoxy correct than most movies, it suffers from a syndrome I'll call Bergman-itis, that afflicts most Israeli films about the ultra-Orthodox. That's because in nearly every film about this community - among them Amos Gitai's Kadosh and David Volach's My Father, My Lord - the characters all speak in the hushed tones of an Ingmar Bergman film, often sitting in utter silence. That may be dramatic, but anyone who has ever been on a street or household in an Orthodox community will notice that the noise-level is quite high, with children playing, people coming and going at almost every hour, street noise, etc. You might think that the Orthodox took some kind of vow of silence, though, if your only knowledge of this community came from movies. These criticisms aside, the movie is elevated far above ordinary melodrama by the performance of its leading actor, Zohar Strauss. I've seen him in a number of other movies, most recently the still-unreleased Lebanon, in which he plays a very different character, a harsh, cynical officer behind enemy lines. He is always good, but here, his work is remarkable. He is low-key and subtle; there is nothing camp or showy about his performance. Utterly masculine, he conveys the unease of a man who has never felt comfortable in the role he's played. Tinkerbell is also quietly assured in her key role. Ron Danker plays up the mystery and seductiveness of his character. He and Strauss have real chemistry together and it's the love as well as the sexual feelings between the characters that give this film its power. While some will be put off by the subject matter, Eyes Wide Open is a moving look at a sensitive subject.