Monday, May 31, 2010

Review - Eyes Wide Open (Einaym Pkuhot)

Aaron Fleischman (Zohar Strauss) is a good man, a devout man, a family man. He is an Orthodox Jew living in Jerusalem, and he has just inherited the family butcher shop from his late father. At the start of Haim Tabakman's courageous film, we see Aaron placing a 'Help Wanted' sign in his window, and shortly afterwards, a young stranger enters the shop to take shelter from the torrential rain. The relationship between Aaron and Ezri (Ran Danker) will form the heart of Eyes Wide Open, with their initial friendship developing – via longing glances and hesitant touching – into a forbidden romance. Of the two, Ezri is more comfortable in his sexuality, having travelled to Jerusalem in the first place to make contact with a former lover who no longer wants any part of their relationship. For Aaron, however, these feelings are all new, and the internal conflict he faces is written in Zohar Strauss' expressive, haunted eyes.

The struggle faced by Aaron and Ezri pits them against not only the codes of their society but also the codes of their own faith. Many scenes in Eyes Wide Open depict discussions of the Torah and of the way sin can present us with an opportunity to overcome and grow closer to God, and when Ezri makes his first advance, Aaron tells him to, "Restrain yourself. We have an opportunity to rise," but it is clear that he is fighting a losing battle against his own desires. The passionate (though chastely filmed) sex Aaron shares with Ezri is depicted as a marked contrast to the coy and mechanical coupling that takes place in the occasionally pushed-together marital beds he shares with Rivka (Tinkerbell, yes that's really her name), and he seems revitalised by the love he has found from this most unlikely source, even if he knows it goes against everything he believes. "I was dead before," he tells one accuser, "Now I'm alive," but as his behaviour changes and he starts staying later at his shop every night, scandalous whispers begin to spread through the community.

The society Aaron and Ezri live in is shown to be a harshly intolerant one by Tabakman. In one scene, Aaron is forced to join a group as they pay a visit to a young man who has been having an affair with an engaged woman, making dire threats of involving the notoriously uncompromising "modesty squad," and ignoring the victim's protestations of love. This environment will be familiar to anyone who has seen Sandi Dubowski's thoughtful documentary Trembling Before G-d, but the model for Tabakman's film appear to be Brokeback Mountain, with the film's passions being played in a low key fashion and the sadness of the central characters' thwarted love being allowed to develop slowly. Tabakman has a calm and sober style and he often shoots in long, quiet takes that give his actors the chance to display their steadily mounting desire for each other. They do this superbly, with both Strauss and Danker giving authentic and touching performances, but their relationship never quite sparks into life, or perhaps it's simply the case that the director doesn't allow it to. Tabakman's direction is a little too restrained and a little too understated for the grand passion Aaron and Ezri feel to be fully expressed by the picture. The film unfolds at such a consistently measured pace that the final scenes had little emotional impact for me, and as such, it ultimately felt rather underwhelming. Eyes Wide Open is a bold and commendable film, but while it left me with plenty to think about, my emotions remained untouched.