Israel isn’t generally known as an epicenter for gay cinema or independent drama, but director Eytan Fox made a big splash on the international-film scene with his 2002 effort Yossi & Jagger, which told the story of two men serving in the Israel Defense Forces who fall in love but differ on how open they can be about their relationship. Despite being produced on a slim budget, the movie was a critical and commercial success in Israel and fared well on the art-house circuit in Europe and America. A decade after the arrival of Yossi & Jagger, Fox has returned to the story of his principal character in the drama Yossi, which finds the protagonist still struggling with his identity and his need to be loved after making his way back into civilian life.
Yossi opens ten years after the events of the first film, as 34-year-old Yossi (Ohad Knoller) is now a cardiologist at a hospital in Tel Aviv. He still hasn’t come to terms with the death of his lover Jagger and buries himself in his work, with his rare nights off devoted to greasy take-out food, porn, and old, sentimental music. He occasionally visits a gay-dating website, but a humiliating hookup with an arrogant club owner only confirms his wariness about pursuing a relationship. And Yossi isn’t open about his sexuality with his colleagues at the hospital: He refuses to tell Nina (Ola Schur Selektar), a nurse who is clearly interested in him, that she’s barking up the wrong tree, and his best friend on the staff, Moti (Lior Ashkenazi), is determined to fix him up with a woman during a drunken night out. After an emotional encounter with Jagger’s parents and an accident during a diagnostic procedure that nearly kills a patient, Yossi grudgingly takes some time off, and is driving to Sinai when, while stopping for a sandwich, he encounters four Israeli soldiers on leave who have just missed their bus. Yossi offers to give them a lift, and after dropping them off at a resort hotel in Eilat where they plan to spend a few days, he impulsively decides to join them. One reason is Tom (Oz Zehavi), a good-looking soldier who is often the target of ribbing from his friends for being a “homo.” Yossi isn’t sure at first if Tom is really gay or just doesn’t share all of his pals’ interests, but he senses a connection with him. Before long, he discovers that Tom is indeed attracted to men, though while his friends and comrades know, he hasn’t come out to his family. Over the course of the weekend, Yossi and Tom’s new friendship seems to be evolving into something deeper, but Yossi, stocky and lacking in confidence, is afraid to open himself up to disappointment by making the first move towards the younger and handsome Tom.
While Yossi is a film that’s never less than honest about its protagonist and his sexuality, director Eytan Fox and screenwriter Itay Segal have made this a truly universal story about a man who finds the courage to pursue the possibility of love again after heartbreak and loss. Fox has a valuable ally in leading man Ohad Knoller, whose performance as Yossi is subtle but emotionally powerful; his small gestures clearly communicate the balance of depression and need that defines his personality, and without fawning he makes Yossi a character nearly anyone can look to with empathy and understanding. While Oz Zehavi’s Tom almost seems too good to be true, he’s smart enough not to rely entirely on his looks and charm, and his interplay with his army buddies has the rowdy and playfully tasteless ring of truth. Lior Ashkenazi is memorable as the hard-partying and sometimes clueless Moti, and Ola Schur Selektar gets one superb scene as Nina in which she reveals that her loneliness and longing is as severe as Yossi’s, though it’s sadly misdirected. Fox’s approach to this film is straightforward and elegant -- the dialogue seems as fresh as an overheard conversation, the visual style is clean and crisp, the emotional journey of the characters feels true to life, and the picture delivers an impact that belies its modest scale. At 84 minutes, Yossi is deliberately compact, but not a moment goes to waste; it’s an intelligent, satisfying film that says more about love and relationships than most recent movies you’re likely to run across. leave a comment --Mark Deming