By Steven Philp
Following a handful of screenings in the United States and Canada, the critically acclaimed Israeli film Eyes Wide Open was released on DVD for North American consumers this past month. The debut of director Haim Tabakman is a nuanced examination of the conflict between the desires of the flesh and the spirit; it finds its particular power in the recognition that these two spheres are often closer than we care to acknowledge. Written by Merav Doster, the film is set in an ultra-Orthodox neighborhood of Jerusalem where the daily rhythm is defined by the obligations of work, family, and fulfilling mitzvot.
Our protagonist, Aaron (Zohar Strauss)–having recently inherited his deceased father’s butcher shop – finds purpose, albeit one characterized by predictability, within this community; he is recognized among his neighbors as a tzaddik, working against an implied lack of formal education through devout study and prayer. Although it is apparent that he cares for his wife, Rivka (Tinkerbell), and their four children, he lacks the same passion for his wife as applies to Torah-study. Their relationship is one of respectful cohabitation, punctuated by the intimacy that comes with familiarity.
In an act of charity Aaron takes in a young yeshiva dropout named Ezri (Ran Danker), allowing him to stay in a spare room at the butcher shop in exchange for his apprenticeship. Although Aaron seems oblivious to the unspoken attraction between the two men, it becomes apparent that he sees these feelings as an obstacle to be conquered; in a discussion with his study group, Aaron expresses his belief that the opportunity to sin – through diligent resistance – can lead to spiritual development. Yet Aaron’s intellectual justifications eventually fall short of his desire, allowing for physical and emotional intimacy to grow between the two men.
Here the quiet tension of the film is most palpable, as we see Aaron attempt to navigate between his sense of obligation to community and the desire for self-fulfillment. He becomes victim to the same “modesty squads” which he himself, at the behest of his rabbi, has participated in. Most poignantly Aaron is forced to acknowledge the quiet pain of his wife, who faithfully maintains their home even as she faces growing rumors of his infidelity. What is unique about this story is the careful examination of Aaron’s two relationships; unlike similar films–Brokeback Mountain comes to mind–the contrast is not between his passionate love for Ezri and the cold deceit of his wife. Rather, Aaron is faced with making a decision between the fire of his relationship with the young man and the predictable comfort of his wife. His love for both individuals, although qualitatively different, is obvious throughout the film.
This is where Eyes Wide Open finds its strength; it refuses to condemn, even as it carefully examines the constraints of living within the ultra-Orthodox community. Tabakman captures the rhythms of its inhabitants beautifully, highlighting the sense of pride and purpose that can be found in strict observance. He also illustrates the multifaceted nature of human relationships, showing with equal weight the limitations of unchecked passion versus love without desire. The conclusion of the film leaves us with a degree of dissatisfaction that artfully mirrors the painful necessity of Aaron’s decision; Tabakman is smart to withhold the happy ending that we desire, arguing that acquiescence is the necessary response to the entanglement of passion and obligation.