Today’s cinema adventure: Eyes Wide Open, a 2009 Hebrew-language film by first-time director Haim Tabakman depicting the spiritual and social conflict sparked by a blossoming homosexual relationship within a deeply Orthodox neighborhood of Jerusalem. One of the growing number of gay-and-lesbian-themed films to come out of Israel in recent years, it is the story of Aaron, a dedicated husband and father who inherits his father’s butcher shop; when he takes on a young homeless student as an apprentice, a forbidden attraction develops between them, eventually growing into an affair that tests his faith and threatens to cost him not only his beloved family but his place as a well-liked and respected member of the community as well. A film that treads on potentially dangerous, controversial ground, it handles its subject matter with respect for both the valued traditions of the Orthodox Jewish Church and the importance of fulfilling the needs of the heart; the screenplay by Merav Doster carefully constructs its narrative around the delicate issue at its center, choosing to offer up a chronicle of a man’s personal crisis of faith rather than an indictment of attitudes, and to focus on the honest examination of emotional experience instead of on the promotion of a particular agenda, treating its characters with sympathy regardless of which position they hold in the moral tug-of-war being staged. The result is thought-provoking without being inflammatory, moving without being manipulative, and reverent without being precious- a fine example of the kind of slice-of-life drama that achieves its goals simply by presenting its tale in a straightforward manner and allowing the viewer to make up their own mind about the issues raised within.
Despite the weighty social and spiritual matters being explored here, Eyes Wide Open is by no means an entirely solemn film. It manages to find many ways to lighten its tone, from the ironic and observational humor inherent in its situation to the more abstract metaphorical connections drawn from the large amount of meat its two main characters must handle throughout; and lest we forget it in all this talk of moral dilemmas and social obligations, this is first and foremost a romance- and a steamy one, at that. The passion between these two men is carefully crafted, building steadily from their first glimpse of each other, smoldering insistently as they grow closer and becoming stronger with each averted opportunity, until it finally explodes in a fervent love scene that is as joyful as it is erotic- and it is extremely erotic, despite (or perhaps because of) the fact that it is not visually explicit. The power of their connection does not end there, however, because the bond is not merely a sexual one; their emotional connection is built just as carefully, and it is this deeper feeling that makes their relationship so engaging and places the stakes so high. For in the end, it is the love they have for each other that turns Aaron’s life inside out, not the mere physical attraction that has brought them together; and it is the convincing portrayal of that love that keeps us invested, sharing with this illicit couple in their happiness and their heartbreak. The credit for this, of course, must go to the two actors who play them, Zoharr Strauss and Ran Danker, neither of whom, as far as I know, are gay offscreen- not that it matters. Both men are charismatic and instantly likable, and they each convey the depth and range of their roles with clarity. In particular, Strauss (who plays Aaron) does a superb job of allowing his inner landscape to show through a necessarily stoic exterior; his is the more complex role, requiring him to wrestle with a much wider range of conflicts than his younger counterpart, and he meets the challenge admirably. Which is not to say that Danker (an impossibly handsome young actor) is overshadowed or outdone; his Ezri is a portrait of a man who is resigned to the necessity of hiding his true nature, but is not ashamed of it- as he reveals in his intimate moments with Strauss when the veneer slides away and his passion and sensitivity shine through. Also delivering fine performances are Tinkerbell as Aaron’s patient wife, struggling with her growing suspicions and doing her best to fight, in her own small way, for her husband’s love; and Tzahi Grad as Aaron’s rabbi and friend, whose loyalty is stretched to its limit as he tries to maintain his support.
Director Tabakman wisely chooses to place the burden of telling the story on his actors, largely using stationary, long takes that permit an uninterrupted flow within the scenes; but he nevertheless brings his visual sense to the film with a keen eye for composing his frames, and he utilizes his Jerusalem setting- beautifully photographed by Axel Schneppat- to underscore the movie’s central conflict with the visual clash between the city’s ancient architecture and its contemporary, urban feel. His greatest accomplishment with Eyes Wide Open, however, is undoubtedly the way he allows it to deliver its full, cumulative effect without trying to tip the scales one way or the other. The scrupulous fairness with which he handles his subject is, in terms of artistic integrity, his greatest strength.
That fairness, however, also opens up the film to its greatest criticism. By refusing to overtly choose a side in this struggle between traditional religious doctrine and contemporary respect for individual freedom, the film risks interpretation as an anti-gay polemic. Certainly its treatment of homosexuality itself is beyond reproach, but so too is its sensitivity to the ancient mores of the Orthodox Hebrew culture; it is far too heavy and complicated a conflict to deserve glib or easy treatment, but those with a more progressive bent might wish for a stronger stance on the side of tolerance and equality. Personally, it is hard for me to characterize a film as anti-gay when it creates such sympathy for its homosexual characters and works so hard to generate hope from the audience for them to be together; and by virtue of exploring the conflict- which is clearly universal, for the setting could just as easily be in a heavily Christian or Muslim community- the film opens up the kind of thinking and discussion which can ultimately lead to positive change, whether socially or personally. Eyes Wide Open, however, is not a fantasy: in the end, Aaron must make a choice between holding on to the beliefs upon which he has built his life or abandoning everything he has ever known for the sake of his own happiness. The choice will not be a surprise to anyone who has paid attention to the struggle of this noble, upright man; and though one might wish that choice were a different one, how many of us would truly have the courage to make it? Still, in the film’s final moments, when Aaron is submerging himself in the waters of a cleansing spring he had once visited with Ezri, and he doesn’t come back up before the camera cuts to black, we cannot help but wonder how long he can hold his breath.