An intense, restrained drama about a married butcher who falls in love with a seductive younger man in Jerusalem's insular ultra-orthodox community.

Taboo-breaking “Eyes Wide Open” is an intense, restrained drama about a married butcher who falls in love with a seductive younger man in Jerusalem’s insular ultra-orthodox community. Sensitively helmed feature debut by Haim Tabakman boasts a tightly structured, multi-layered script by Merav Doster, intimate lensing and strong, credible performances. Quietly devastating pic reps a natural draw for gay, Jewish-interest and upscale auds that could be exploited by fests and niche arthouse distribs in most territories.

Recalling Amos Gitai’s “Kadosh” and David Volach’s “My Father My Lord” (which Tabakman edited) for both its careful attention to anthropological/sociological detail and measured pace, the soberly fascinating pic shows the attractions and disadvantages of life in a closed religious community. The sense of belief and belonging comes through clearly, as does the warmth of home and family.

But it’s a compact, rigidly ordered world in which everyone knows everyone else’s business. The eyes of the community inevitably fall upon those who do not conform. And it’s shocking to see the extremes community leaders take to ensure obedience.

Thirtysomething Aaron (stage thesp Zohar Strauss, in a breakthrough role) runs his father’s kosher butchery and lives a life of purity and prayer with wife Rivka (Tinkerbell) and four young sons. When handsome, 20-ish outsider Ezri (reigning Israeli heartthrob Ran Danker) turns up at his shop one rainy day, his presence ignites feelings Aaron has long repressed.

Welcoming the sacred challenge of being able to confront and control his passions (“the closer to the sin, the closer to God”), Aaron offers Ezri a job and place to stay. Yet before long, the two give way to their ardor.

Tabakman’s nuanced direction makes the men’s repressed desire palpable early on as natural opportunities to touch provide a frisson. When they sing with the men in their Torah study group, arms about each other’s shoulders, their joy is far more than spiritual.

Meanwhile, paralleling their doomed relationship, a neighboring shopkeeper persists in seeing a man of her own choosing, even though she’s been promised by her father to another. Aaron is compelled to join the rabbi in paying a threatening call on the man. Guiltily conscious of his own deviance from the community norm, Aaron numbly warns the man of what a visit by the “purity police” would involve.

Gritty, realist art direction reinforces the sense of the characters’ enclosed world, just as tight framing in indoor spaces stresses strictures that govern their lives. Sophisticated sound design of near-constant background murmuring becomes increasingly ominous.

Particularly important are the pashkavils (posters serving as one of the ultra-orthodox’s few forms of mass communication) plastered on the narrow alleyways of their enclave. Throughout the pic, they bear progressively malevolent messages.

Costumes accurately reflect the community’s dress. Who would have supposed that a nervously fingered tzitzit (fringes on men’s prayer shawls) could express so much emotion?

Pic is of the increasingly rare indies to be shot on film; tech credits are pro. Only the ponderous faux-sacred music score strikes a wrong note.

Eyes Wide Open

Israel-France-Germany

Production

A Pimpa Film Prods. (Israel)/Riva Filmproduktion (Germany)/Totally (France) production, in co-production with ZDF Das Kleine Fernsehspiel, in cooperation with Arte, YES, Keshet, with the support of the Israel Film Fund, Filmforderung Hamburg Schleswig-Holstein. (International sales: Films Distribution, Paris.) Produced by Rafael Katz, Michael Eckelt, Isabelle Atttal, David C. Barrat. Directed by Haim Tabakman. Screenplay, Merav Doster.

Crew

Camera (color), Axel Schneppat; editor, Dov Steuer; music, Nathaniel Mechaly; art director, Avi Fahima, costume designer, Yam Brusilovsky; sound (Dolby Digital), Gil Toren. Reviewed at Cannes Film Festival (Un Certain Regard), May 20, 2009. Running time: 90 MIN.

With

Zohar Strauss, Ran Danker, Tinkerbell. (Hebrew, Yiddish dialogue)

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