In its titular protagonist, Yossi presents an in-the-closet gay man who’s thoroughly sympathetic. This is a sequel ten years after US-born Israel director Eytan Fox’s bold first film, Yossi and Jagger, whose main characters were gay lovers at war, in a macho unit not accepting of their orientation, and then the dashing, handsome Jagger, the love of Yossi’s life, got killed in action. An IDF medic then, Yossi has become a cardiologist and works in a Tel Aviv hospital. Israel and the Israeli military have become more open minded, but Yossi, still grieving his lost lover, and still played by Ohad Knoller, 20 pounds heavier, is too shut down to care. Burying himself in his work, he remains in the closet and sleepwalks through life despite the efforts of uncomprehending colleagues who think he’s straight to seduce him or get him laid. Fox’s bold debut was flashy and intense. His 2004 Walk on Water was complicated and its fantasy ending was weak. His 2006 The Bubble, designed to depict a whole liberated urban generation of young Israelis, was interesting but a little too diffuse. The six-year wait has been worth it because this time Fox settles into a more assured and simple approach. Yossi is a warm film that’s fully centered with no good guys and bad guys: it’s gentle and nuanced, a quiet triumph.
The film proceeds by a series of awkward encounters. There’s a lonely nurse at the hospital, Nina (Schur-Selektar), who’s attracted to Yossi, and a tiresome but well-meaning just-divorced straight doctor, Moti (Lior Ashkenazi) who wants to get him laid. Both relations are strained because he won’t say he’s gay. Yossi does an examination of Varda, who he knows is Jagger’s (Lior’s) mother, played by Orly Silbersatz Bansai, the mother in Nir Bergman’s recent Intimate Gammar. But he takes a while to reveal who he is to her. After a pointless and embarassing night out with Moti, Yossi goes to Varda and Jagger’s father and tells them, very delicately, but with emotion, about his very special relationship with their son. The truth doesn’t set anybody free in this painful encounter, but it, like the rest, is gentle, and a leap forward for Yossi. On a weekend trip going to Sinai and then a resort hotel at Eilat Yossi gives a ride to four soldiers, one of whom, Tom (Oz Zehavi), is openly gay. The others tease but accept Tom. This encounter with the soldiers ignites Yossi’s feelings, though he resists. It takes Yossi a while to realize (or accept) that the hunky young Tom is pursuing him. Maybe the fact that Yossi’s reading Death in Venice and listening to Mahler in the car is a bit obvious; other pop music references are more ambiguous.
While Fox’s other films were full of action, he makes his protagonist this time static. The camera spends a lot of time just looking directly into Ohad Knoller’s face, and asks the viewer to imagine what’s going on inside. And this pays off in a moving, subtle film. It’s a small film, but its heart is large. The screenplay by Itay Segal is a return to roots and basics. Knoller won the Best Actor award at Toronto for his performance in Yossi and Jagger, and he does not disappoint in this more understated return to the role. That Oz Zehavi is an Israeli hearthrob brings electricity to events, as did the popular Ran Danker’s presence as the gay young orthodox Jewish lover in Haim Tabakman’s 2009 Eyes Wide Open. The only wrong note is that Yossi, whose extra poundage has made him almost completely homely, would so conveniently become immediately appealing to a handsome, sexy and buff young gay soldier. Fox again ends with a degree of fantasy, offsetting the final tragedy of Yossi and Jagger, and this happy ending is a necessary affirmation of healthy gay sexuality, really gay love; but in making that affirmation, Fox strains our credulity. In a highly favorable new review Armond White describes Yossi’s story as “a second coming out.” “Yossi’s gentle romanticism,” White says, “disguises the fact that Fox is making a major artistic advance.” White thinks Fox is not really an “issues” filmmaker and so fares better here with this simple, personal theme. He may overlook the extent to which the personal is political, especially in matters of gay identity.
In a recent NY Times article about Yossi, Ari Karpel says Eytan Fox has played a central role in Israeli film’s lively past decade, paving a way for a more positive view of gay life in the country and its cinema than the one provided previously in Amos Guttman’s widely seen 1982 Drifting. For Fox, Yossi was important to pull his protagonist out of the sad place where his debut film had left him and was also a review of his own self of fifteen years ago. Karpel cites a book on gays in Israeli cinema by Nir Cohen that says a film like Eyes Wide Open could not have been made without Fox’s groundbreaking. In Yossi, the protagonist enters a new world where being Israeli and being gay are no longer contradictions.
Yossi/Ha-Sippur Shel Yossi debuted at Tribeca 19 April 2012 and opened in the UK 30 November. It came out (no pun intended) in France 2 Jan. 2013 (Allociné press rating: 3.1). Strand Releasing bought the North American rights and a staggered US release begins 25 Jan. in NYC and continues 1 Feb. in LA., and beyond.
DIRECTOR: EYTAN FOX
WRITERS: ITAY SEGAL
CAST: OHAD KNOLLER, OZ ZEHAVI, LIOR ASHKENAZI, ORLY SILBERSATZ BENAI, OLA SCHNUR SELEKTAR, MEIR GOLAN, SHLOMI BEN ATTAR, AMIR JERASSI, RAFI TAVOR
RUNTIME: 84 MINS