A slow boil churns inside Eyes Wide Open, the debut feature from director Haim Tabakman. Amidst the insular and oppressive community of orthodox Jews in Jerusalem, two men struggle and find love amongst the danger of oppression.
Aaron (a riveting and restrained Zohar Strauss) is a married butcher who takes over his father’s shop when he passes. Business is not doing well as we see him taking a day’s worth of meat and tossing it in the garbage. Enter Ezri (Israeli heartthrob Ran Danker), a young and handsome stranger without a job, an education or a place to stay. At first Aaron is indifferent to him but the mere offering of his telephone and a moment out of the downpour outside creates an intimate bond. Aaron offers Ezri a place to stay above the butcher shop, where his father used to go to rest. It’s not long before the friction of Aaron’s repressed desire percolates; while relaxing in a spring far out of town Aaron goes out of his way to not look at Ezri as he disrobes next him. Aaron carefully enters the spring with his boxers still on, removing them once in the water. He understands and recognizes what he is feeling and Strauss is perfection at presenting this with the utmost carefulness and subtlety.
When Ezri tries to kiss Aaron, Aaron stops his short, their lips about to touch. He espouses that this is the moment God created them for; to defer and avoid lust, to rise to the challenge to not give in. Ezri acquiesces to his wish, but not before the neighbor across the way witnesses the interaction. Unable to fight his feelings anymore, Aaron corners Ezri in the cooler of the butchery and feverishly and fervently they embrace, finishing the act before any clothes can even be removed.
It’s not long before the whispers and rumors start. Warnings arise from Aaron’s close-knit group of rabbis and in the form of the pashkavils, the posters that serve as alerts to behavior unbecoming in the neighborhood. Aaron and the rabbis confront a man for his actions on a young girl and we know it’s only a matter of time before Aaron and Ezri’s doomed relationship will fall victim to the same threats.
While it would be easy to dismiss this film as an Israeli Brokeback Mountain, the comparison is apt and earned. It’s a technically marvelous film. Its direction and cinematography capture the closed quarters and increasingly constricted opportunities for the lovers to meet and the script is both progressive and respectful to the region as well as to the characters.