The first clear action taken in Haim Tabakman’s quietly striking debut feature, Eyes Wide Open, is about as on-the-nose as this small film gets. A Kosher butcher, Aaron (a very good Zohar Strauss), arrives at the shop he has recently inherited from his recently deceased father and, soaked to the bone from a sudden downpour, begins to break the chains that hold the store’s gate closed with a nearby stone. Unresolved daddy issues, perhaps? Sure, but Aaron, who lives and worships in a strictly Orthodox neighborhood of Jerusalem, is burdened by things much greater than his departed father and, as the film goes on, the blatant symbolism of this early action takes on a myriad of meanings.
The shop itself, with it discarded, dead flesh, rituals, and sharp instruments, offers its own implicit meanings; its interior suggests a mausoleum. After putting the place into working condition, Aaron begins to go about his work when Ezri (Ran Danker) enters the shop, looking for a moment’s respite from the rain and a phone to use. The conversation is brief but obviously personal and Ezri, who claims to be a yeshiva student, trudges back out into the rain, following Aaron’s reluctance to hire him. But after seeing the young man sleeping in temple, Aaron offers Ezri both a job and a place to sleep until he finds his own apartment. The two become close, splashing around naked while performing the ritual of immersion, and, inevitably, begin a passionate affair, despite Aaron’s seeming devotion to his faith above any form of earthly pleasure, not to mention his wife (Tinkerbell) and children.
The promise of Aaron’s punishment for betraying such devotions is mirrored in a local man who’s threatened for sleeping with a woman betrothed to another man; Aaron is, in fact, one of a group that threatens the man. For Ezri, the threat of banishment means nothing: We see him attempting to reconnect with a past lover who he followed to Jerusalem early in the film. On the surface, Aaron hardly varies from the generic self-hating, closeted homosexual that has become the acceptable archetype to portray in popular cinema, especially in America, but Strauss handles the character with such restraint that even a line as cringe-worthy as “I was dead before, now I’m alive” sounds sincere, even heartbreaking. And if Strauss’s performance doesn’t fully convey the anguish of Eyes Wide Open‘s subject matter, Tabakman’s Jerusalem, dour and melancholic, expresses a mood of unyielding repression that makes the lacerating turmoil palpable.
That suffering that Aaron and Ezri go through is largely internalized which makes the film’s hushed final act of sacrifice so haunting. Tabakman, working from a script by Merav Doster, is equally respectful and mystified by the actions of the community, evading every chance for tired politics and empty sentimentality. Toward the end of the film, Ezri and Aaron confront anger with their perceived actions but the community’s anger is less about what they did and more about putting the sanctity of the town in danger. Tabakman and Doster are those rare practitioners that neither look down on religious doctrine nor easily characterize those adherent to that doctrine as bigots, all of which makes their case for understanding and respect all the more powerful.
Eyes Wide Open is presented in its original 2.35:1 aspect ratio and the DVD handles Haim Tabakman's landscapes and interiors nicely. The muted colors are upheld well, but there's a negligible lack of detailing in some night scenes. Black levels could be better but remain serviceable. The audio keeps the dialogue out front and mixes atmosphere with score for a crisp balance of sound.
The disc, like the movie, is rather barebones. The only extra is a short interview with director Habakman that provides some insight to the film's themes but little to its production.
One of the more unsentimental and even-handed depictions of the collision between faith and passion, Eyes Wide Open arrives in a DVD package that focuses on what's important: the film.