Yesterday PJ and I saw Eyes Wide Open (Einaym Pkuhot), an Israeli film by director Haim Tabakman. It stars Zohar Shtrauss as an Orthodox butcher with a wife and kids who suddenly finds himself attracted to his apprentice, Ezri, played by Ran Danker. The movie explores what this means for Aaron, his community, and his family (in roughly that order). Here’s the trailer:

Shtrauss is great as Aaron, a man obviously torn between everything he’s ever known and lived and his desire for Ezri. He plays Aaron as a very quiet, insular man who suddenly blossoms when he meets Ezri. At first his responses to the younger man are tentative and shy, and Shtrauss is excellent in this segment of the film.

In contrast to Aaron’s shyness, Danker’s Ezri already knows that he’s gay and desires men. He arrives in Jerusalem on the understanding that he will be living with his boyfriend, who immediately shuns Ezri because of what the relationship will mean to his status in the orthodox community. Ezri runs into Aaron and ends up becoming his apprentice. I like that Danker plays him as equally surprised to find himself in this new relationship — he doesn’t start out sexually interested in Aaron. Their desires are slow to kindle.

The slow, almost lazy pace of the film can get a little frustrating, I have to admit, but ultimately I really liked that it took its time exploring this relationship and its consequences. We see these men’s desire for one another flicker and then grow into something that consumes them regardless of what their neighbors think. Of course this last point is what brings about the film’s crisis as Aaron is forced to choose between his family and his love.

I also liked the way the film depicts the community’s responses to Aaron’s “sin”: different people see it differently. Aaron’s wife, played by Tinkerbell, chooses to ignore what’s happening for as long as she can. While she sees all of the evidence almost as soon as the relationship turns sexual, she tries to preserve her family but is eventually forced to confront her husband about it. I thought it was really smart to have her care more about preserving her family and its status in the community than about her husband or his desires. Because we see what her priorities are, it makes her less villainous, as such roles can be in queer movies. I never thought that she was a caricature.

The community’s rabbi has a different perspective on the matter. On the one hand, he teaches that God gives his people pleasures and desires so that we can enjoy them and be happy and contented. His teaching is tested by Aaron’s relationship with Ezri. In the end, he’s more concerned with preserving the community than in punishing Aaron’s “sin.” Ultimately, he comes across as a hypocrite, on the one hand, but also as a man who tries his best to understand Aaron, which is not to say that he ever condones what he’s doing. Quite the reverse. There’s a great scene in which the rabbi confronts Aaron about his relationship with Ezri. When Aaron explains that he was dead until he met him, the rabbi slaps him, the moment that probably has more impact on Aaron than any other.

The third perspective is that of the rabbinical students who are Ezri’s age. They react to this relationship with nothing but blind judgment. They simply see black and white, sin and virtue, good and evil. They want to cast out this sin and punish offenders. Theirs is obviously  the least nuanced perspective.

Ultimately this film critiques the Orthodox community for its hypocrisy and brutality, its refusal to allow for difference and homosexuality. But it does so from the inside rather than from an outsider’s point of view. Aaron and Ezri both practice every aspect of their religious except for its prohibition on homosexual activities. And Aaron attempts to reject the latter for as long as he can. Both are caught in a situation that requires them to make a choice between being together and staying in the community.

Eyes Wide Open is a very good movie. It portrays its subjects with respect and shows us the complications of living in an orthodox community: the same thing that makes that community strong, its strong ties to traditional, law, and religious practice, is the same thing that makes it impossible for Aaron and Ezri to live in it together. I definitely recommend it.

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