Saturday, April 13, 2013

Eytan Fox’s Yossi: Modest Israeli Sequel Touches the Heart

Note: this review contains spoilers.

A friend once pointed out he gains a much better understanding of the complexities of Israeli society through the prism of the works of director Eytan Fox, Israel’s best filmmaker. That’s because many of Fox’s movies tackle and pull off the tough feat of actually juggling the myriad strains of that fascinating country. Those films have ranged from The Bubble (2006), a sobering look at the seemingly endless Israeli-Palestinian conflict, as filtered through a love affair between two men, personifying each side to Walk on Water (2004), a powerful examination of German-Jewish and gay-straight relations as showcased through the experiences of a burnt out Mossad operative. But some of Fox’ movies are smaller scaled, none more so than his 2002 movie Yossi & Jagger, which was the first of his films to make an international splash.

Ohad Knoller, who also stars in The Bubble, richly deserved the Best Actor award he won at the Tribeca Film Festival for that movie but his excellent performance was of a piece with the entire cast of this rewarding drama, Focusing on a tightly-knit Israeli army unit which is guarding the Lebanese border, Yossi & Jagger portrays the romantic relationship between two of its soldiers: Yossi (Knoller), the quiet, by-the-books company commander, and the aptly nicknamed Jagger (Yehuda Levi), who has the charisma of a rock star. Jagger, whose army term is almost up, wants to come out of the closet, but Yossi, who's a career military man, fears the repercussions. Despite its seemingly thin skein and short running time of only less than 70 minutes, Yossi & Jagger emerges as a deeply felt, complex and non-stereotypical story – a subtle and poignant telling of a moving love affair. It deservedly marked Fox as a talented filmmaker to watch.

Ohad Knoller in Yossi 

Ten years later, Fox has revisited the tale of Yossi & Jagger in a movie simply titled Yossi (2012). (The Hebrew title is Yossi’s Story.) That shortened moniker is a necessary one since as viewers of the first film know, Jagger died at the end of Yossi & Jagger in battle, with Yossi constrained, at the mourning period (Shiva) after Jagger’s death, to pretend to just be his friend and commander instead of his lover to the deceased’s grieving parents. A decade after Jagger’s untimely death, Yossi, now a cardiologist, is still mourning his loss, still closeted and sleepwalking through his duties at the Tel Aviv hospital where he works. But when a near fatal decision by Yossi almost costs a patient his life, it’s clear that something has to give. When Jagger’s mother (Orly Zilbershats) shows up one day seeking a consult, Yossi is forced to deal straight on with his demons and pain, a process which leads him on a revelatory holiday jaunt to the Israeli resort of Eilat.

A scene from Yossi & Jagger
After the flamboyantly dramatic tone of Fox’s 2009 TV mini-series Mary Lou, an entertaining but undemanding fantasia about a lovelorn drag queen, Yossi marks a return to a cinematic reality but one that, unlike The Bubble and Walk on Water is modest in nature. That’s not a criticism but recognition that you can only make so many layered and detailed hard hitting dramas before you need to take a low key breather with a movie like Yossi. The sequel, unusual in Israeli cinema, is likely a necessary form of closure for Fox in dealing with a beloved character like Yossi who still has much to experience. Knoller’s performance is thus pitch perfect; his Yossi is heavier, sadder and more tragic then ever but, at the same time, takes a welcome step that might lead to some emotional redemption for him and the audience who previously took Yossi & Jagger’s love story to heart.

Yossi is not all about grief though. When Yossi is dragged to a popular straight bar by Moti, a newly divorced fellow surgeon who’s into casual sex and drugs (Walk on Water’s Lior Ashkenazi), the sexual situation he is put through by Moti is both comic and painful to watch. Yossi’s encounter with a bar owner he’s met through the internet, who sees soon enough that his profile is not exactly up to date is a disturbing comment on the nasty undercurrent of superficial online hooking up. And the subplot with Nina (Ola Schur Selektar), a nurse who harbours a crush on Yossi and doesn’t believe the gay rumours about him is typical of Fox’s unerring penchant for depicting subtle, believable scenes of people behaving in recognizable, moving ways. One scene where Yossi finds himself in Jagger’s house doesn't play out as expected and is ineffably moving, besides. (Itay Segal wrote the film’s spare but incisive screenplay, taking over from Avner Bernheimer, who penned much of Fox’s groundbreaking and sharpTV series Florentine, about a 20-something group living and loving in Tel Aviv’s hippest neighbourhood.)

director Etyan Fox
It’s in Yossi’s encounter, in Eilat, with Tom (Oz Zehavi) an out soldier that his chance for personal redemption finally beckons. Their meeting is an interesting contrast with the love affair at the centre of Yossi & Jagger. Unlike in the U.S., Israel has never officially had a ‘don’t ask, don’t’ tell’ policy regarding gay and lesbian soldiers in its military and is one of the most accepting countries in the world when it comes to gays and lesbians, unlike any of its Arab neighbours, but ten years ago when Yossi & Jagger was released, even Israel likely wouldn't have been quite as open towards that sexual minority. To be fair, Fox never states in that movie explicitly that Yossi’s concerns about not being respected by his peers if he comes out is actually true or just an excuse for him avoiding taking that step. After all, Tom’s tolerant fellow soldiers don’t seem any less posturing or macho than those in the army unit of Yossi & Jagger. But, certainly in Yossi, those concerns about being closeted are no longer an issue at all. (Yossi & Jagger didn't receive any military cooperation while it was being filmed but its popularity at home led to its being screened on military bases afterwards so maybe the homosexuality of its lead characters was never that much of an an issue for the army.)

Ultimately, Yossi is about one man’s attempt to break out of a straightjacket he’s made for himself and try to find a small sliver of contentment for himself in the process, as his late lover would have wanted. Not surprisingly, Fox never depicts that journey in a saccharine or obvious way. Yossi may not be about the big headline and attention grabbing Mid-East issues of the day but there’s something to be said about thinking small for a change. Besides, I don’t doubt that Fox will return to painting the big picture of his region soon enough. For now we have the memorable and poignant Yossi, which closes with class the circle that concluded Yossi & Jagger, offering some hope that happiness can be found, even amidst the tragic, indelible memories of the past.

Shlomo Schwartzberg is a film critic, teacher and arts journalist based in Toronto. He teaches regular film courses at Ryerson University’s LIFE Institute. He has just concluded his course, What Makes a Movie Great?. Beginning on May 3 he will be offering one on science fiction movies and television.

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