'Eyes Wide Open': Religion and Sexuality Collide

By Ed Koch
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For several weeks the selection of films has been very meager, but the drought appears to have ended. I read favorable reviews of a half-dozen pictures that opened over the weekend. Although I often disagree with the comments of many reviewers, believing they are too soft and too accepting of movies, I concurred with A. O. Scott's Times review of "Eyes Wide Open." He wrote:

"The three principal actors are remarkably adept at signaling nuances of longing, tenderness and uncertainty without betraying the fundamental reticence of their characters, who can barely speak about what is happening to them."

He also wrote, "And its scrupulous, humane sympathy gives this small, sorrowful film a glow of insight and a pulse of genuine, openhearted curiosity. It moves slowly and patiently through the ordeal of a single soul, illuminating in the process a cosmos of intense and hidden feeling."

While waiting to enter the theater, I asked a few people leaving an earlier show what they thought of the film. The men and women I approached were middle-aged and, I'm guessing, some were straight and some were gay. They responded, "excellent," "very good," "touching," and "sensitive." One woman said, "I loved it, and I'm Roman Catholic."

Interestingly, this week President Obama, who is now involved in seeking to end the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" rule in the armed forces, attended the National Prayer Breakfast with the usual politicos who go each year to the event. According to The New York Times, the guests were embarrassed to learn that:

"The National Prayer Breakfast, which has been held for the last half-century in Washington, drew criticism by some liberal groups because the sponsor, an evangelical Christian network called the Fellowship, is allegedly tied to proposed legislation in Uganda that calls for the imprisonment and execution of homosexuals."

The President and others attended anyway denouncing, of course, the Ugandan law. I believe it was a mistake for anyone to go. They should have attended the alternate prayer breakfast provided by gay and lesbian supporters. No politician today would attend a function at a golf club that prohibited the attendance of blacks, Jews, or women, let alone advocating their execution.

But now to the film, which takes place in Jerusalem in an old section of the city known as Mea Shearim where extremely pious Jews live. (They used to throw stones at cars that entered the area on the Sabbath.) The story is of a butcher, Aaron (Zohar Strauss), his wife Rivka (Tinkerbel), and a young man, Ezri (Ran Danker).

One rainy day Ezri, a stranger in town, enters Aaron's store to make a phone call. Aaron, who is attracted to the young man, offers him a job in the butcher shop. A sexual relationship develops slowly between the two men while Aaron continues his intimacy with Rivka, the mother of his four children. The community becomes suspicious of the two men, and some yeshiva students in the area subject both Aaron and Ezri to public denunciation and physical assault. How the situation is resolved is enthralling. The film deserves the comments made to me by those I met at the Cinema Village.

The gay sex scenes are tepid, more symbolic than erotic. Those interested in viewing a lifestyle they never knew--that of the pious gay--while the acceptance of homosexuality is an issue around the world, will be enlightened by this film.

Henry Stern said: "The title derives from Stanley Kubrick's 1999 film, "Eyes Wide Shut," but it had little to do with the movie. There is incredible sadness in the seduction of a family man by a handsome itinerant. They pray daily in the yeshiva, but they follow their impulses in the bedroom. Ezri should go to the city where he can find brothers and live in peace. A tightly-knit theocratic neighborhood is no place for a gay man, but in a free country like Israel, he can find places where he can be accepted, serve in the army, and even be elected to the Knesset (Uzi Even, a chemistry professor, in 2002). The picture is well made, and Jew, gay, both or neither, you will earn something if you see it."

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