[7 December 2010]
Homosexuality is a hot topic these days. Religion even more so. Combine the two and you have genuine controversy in the making. At least that’s what director Haim Tabakman hopes with his film Eyes Wide Open. Here is a film that tries hard to make a point, and ultimately loses itself in the name of significance.
Tabakman walks a fine line between storyteller and political motivator in his account of two Jewish butchers struggling to maintain control of their repressed desires. The director tries hard to instill a sense of purpose (we know the film is important by the way the camera continually moves and shakes), but fails to provide rational motives for either of his characters.
Eyes Wide Open kicks off with a young Jewish man named Aaron (Zohar Shtrauss) whose father has just passed away. He places a call for new hires, sticking a sign in his shop window (the Jerusalem equivalent of a text message) and receives an answer in the guise of Ezri (Ran Danker). Almost immediately Ezri takes a liking to his boss, and presses him to fight against societal (and religious) decrees. Aaron reluctantly gives into Ezri’s requests and begins a romantic relationship with him, consequently shirking paternal responsibilities and blowing off his “deadbeat” wife in the process. As the forbidden affair evolves, so does the community’s awareness, leading to a violent clashing of values with tragic results.
Eyes Wide Open fails as a film because, while sympathetic to its own cause (that of the pressures instilled upon individuals by religious circles), Merav Doster’s screenplay prefers controversy over plot, structure and character. Consequentially, the two protagonists, Aaron and Ezri, remain listless and shallow. Indeed, Aaron’s love affair with Ezri, while pragmatically touching, appears to come about more as a means to ignite the fires (or rebel) from societal standards then to derive genuine affection. Making matters worse are the inclusion of Aaron’s wife and children, who suffer undeservedly.
Even so, Aaron’s wife Rivka (Tinkerbell) displays little emotional response to the proceedings, choosing instead to punish her adulterous husband with large plates of Jewish pasta (?) and meaningful stares into the camera; in other words, we have no one to root for, or care about.
Characters behave oddly; no one displays a sliver of happiness. Even the head Rabbi (Tzahi Grad) acts more like a brute than a well-disciplined leader of his religion. Wives and even children mope about; the religious meetings mirror those conducted by mobsters; heterosexual sex remains a duty, a lethargic task conducted by husband and wife with little, if any, passion involved.
This subdued emotion rises from the very strict religious ideals set by the local holy men “of the cloth”. Religious practices lead us to believe in the freedom of choice. These same religions tend to throw out such notions in favor of black and white, concrete standards. Aaron thinks Ezri helps him get closer to God. The Rabbis disagree and retaliate in brutal, almost thuggish ways, thus rendering freedom of choice mute. I’m reminded of a quote by Henry Ford: “Any customer can a have a car painted any color that he wants as long as it is black.”
Religion tends to bring about the worst in most people. Standards are set far too high in most cases, and often too strict to accommodate the range of human nature; and those that aptly go along with such strict ideals insist that others do the same – whether they can or not.
“I put no stock in religion,” said David Thewlis in Ridley Scott’s terrific Kingdom of Heaven: The Director’s Cut. “By the word religion I have seen the lunacy of fanatics of every denomination be called the will of god. I have seen too much religion in the eyes of too many murderers. Holiness is in right action, and courage on behalf of those who cannot defend themselves, and goodness. What god desires is here” – points to head – “and here” – points to heart – “and what you decide to do every day, you will be a good man - or not.”
Eyes Wide Open reflects this statement. Aaron and Ezri are persecuted for their actions. Propaganda lines the walls of the town warning the denizens of Aaron and Ezri and their sinful nature. People throw rocks; conduct boycotts; and resort to name calling – all in the name of religion. Of course, all of this would mean something if Aaron and Ezri’s characters were written better. I found Ezri unlikeable, even appalling. He swoops in and robs a family of its father, almost forcefully I might add. Sometimes it felt as though Ezri were taking advantage of Aaron’s depressed state (his father just died, after all), pressing himself into the arms of an individual who may be more in need of a hug than a sexual initiation.
Surprisingly, Tabakman’s film mirrors Kate Chopin’s novel The Awakening in narrative structure and thematic flow. Aaron isn’t as strong as Chopin’s protagonist Edna Pontellier, but he faces similar situations, and even arrives at the same ill-fated conclusion. Both characters feel trapped in meaningless lives, all but giving up on something greater. The arrival of a persona with which to express their innermost passions ignites an internal flame, long since hidden away. Except, where Edna carried that inspiration into painting and participating in new life experiences, Aaron remains a slob, bumming his way through a meaningless existence. I was never entirely sure of his intentions, wants, or needs.
Comparisons to Ang Lee’s Brokeback Mountain are inevitable, but I found little in the way of similarities between the two films. Lee’s tale revolved around two men, one traditional, the other naïve, and their attempts to fit within a contemporary society after a brief sexual encounter. That film was honest, but simple; taking a look behind the ideal American relationship and examining the flaws found within. At the very least, you appreciated the characters’ dilemma, even if you didn’t quite understand them.
Eyes Wide Open has similar issues to discuss, but approaches them only fleetingly. Tabakman drenches us with important notions about society, but never explains why these notions are important. Homosexuality and religion will forever provide ample arguments for all sides; they’re delicate, but significant issues. Alas, Eyes Wide Open won’t move the discussion forward.