(English title: Eyes Wide Open)
Directed by Haim Tabakman
91 min, Israel | Germany | France, 2009
I spent my adolescence and late teens in a fundamentalist Pentecostal sect. In the closet, obviously. I even went to Bible college. Although I’m an agnostic now, as I’ve felt nearer to the end of my life, I’ve been thinking about the paths I took and where different choices might have lead me.
I’m alone, now, and that fact has been determined mostly by choices I made. For instance, instead of dating and finding a lover in the States, I chose to use hustlers and male prostitutes in Eastern Europe as the primary means of getting sexual gratification but also companionship. I’ve written about those choices extensively.
But that’s only half of it. The other half seemed out of my control. Just as I could no longer, in conscience, remain a Christian, I felt I could no longer be true to myself – find happiness, in other words – and pursue a boyfriend in a traditional way. At least, the traditional way that an out urban gay man is supposed to do that.
But, what if I’d had other choices? What if marriage equality had been a reality, and accepted by some religious groups, when I was growing up, as it it is in some states in the US and as it is here in Argentina where I live now? As it will be inevitably even more pervasively in the future. What if gay life in urban gay ghettos wasn’t so marked by identity politics, subcultural body fascism, celebrity worship and bad music?
Would I have remained a Christian? Would I have still been alone? Could I have reconciled more easily being an outsider in everything – something I had felt since childhood – with the contradictory desire to be part of something, to be valued by others in a community? I asked the question that all outsiders ask. Is there something wrong with me? Or is there something wrong with the world? I’ve concluded the latter far more often than was good for me.
My period in the church represents the most connected I ever was to a community of people. It was also full of my suppressed longing and quasi-romantic friendships with younger men which eventually began to appear suspect to that same community. But, what if that hadn’t been the case? What if I had been free to pursue those relationships openly? Where would I be now?
Those were some of the things I thought about while watching Eyes Wide Open, a film that contrasts the lives of two Orthodox Jewish men – one an older respected member of the Hasidic community, married with children and running a Kosher butcher shop and the other an outcast, a 22-year old hedonistic wanderer, student and artist who can’t resist acting on the passions of the moment and yet who still remains a Jew, and Orthodox.
The two of them enter a sexual relationship but one complicated, to say the least, by the culture they’re immersed in. They really don’t have many choices but they briefly attempt to reconcile what they’re feeling with the community that prohibits those feelings and threatens to expel them if they follow “the wrong path.”
Aaron, the oldest, uses his scholarship of the Talmud to conceptualize what he’s going through. He sees his temptations, embodied in Ezri, the younger man, whom he calls “a masterpiece,” as a way to prove his faith. He rejects a Rabbi’s rather loose and sunny interpretation of a particular scriptural passage about unnecessary sacrifice and instead concludes that sacrifice is at the heart of serving G-d. The ascetic must “love the hardships, love to overcome them.” He says something similar when Ezri makes a bold and heavy-breathing pass at Aaron on a rooftop. He doesn’t exactly refuse him but he doesn’t accept the overture, either. At least, not then.
Aaron believes that by resisting passion, he and Ezri will become better men. Together. Passion itself is not the problem.
But he can’t resist temptation and doesn’t.
But what if he didn’t have to?
The film beautifully and subtly dramatizes the attraction between the two men before anything sexual happens between them. From the first shot of Ezri looking at Aaron, there’s an appeal in his eyes that Aaron recognizes immediately though it takes a few minutes for him to react and offer him shelter and a job.
Aaron wants both to protect Ezri, again justifying this theologically — G-d made Ezri and only Ezri can live for G-d; there are no “faults”; what about charity and good deeds? – and also feels him to be his salvation, personally and of his faith. In a confrontation with his rabbi, Aaron refuses to cast Ezri out and explains it this way: I need him. For the first time in years, I feel alive. That’s when the Rabbi, previously supporting Aaron despite the growing animosity toward Ezri in the community, slaps Aaron across the face.
That’s the film’s most overtly emotional dramatic moment. Otherwise, the two actors, Zohar Shtrauss as Aaron and Ran Danker as Ezri, play their characters with restraint, slowly shifting expressions and small glances, and the camera consistently frames them in medium shots and medium long shots within their milieu – the family home, the narrow streets of Jerusalem, the Talmud school, the butcher shop – as if they were the subjects of documentary photography.
There’s also a provocative use of selective focus, particularly in close-ups:
But also in medium shots, the use of which both isolates and incorporates the couple within their surroundings:
Ultimately, there is no satisfactory reconciliation between their relationship and their culture. Ezri is too reckless and impulsive; he resumes wandering. Aaron is too rooted with no small degree of happiness in his established family and religion; he returns home. Chosen or determined? Or both?
The film ends at a ritual bath outside the city, the same one where Ezri had mischievously tempted Aaron with his naked butt. This time, wearing only a modesty sock, Aaron enters the pool alone to regain his purity.
He dunks himself under the water. He never comes up.
You can buy Eyes Wide Open on Amazon.