A lovingly rendered slow burn of a character study, Yossi impresses its message upon viewers with a quiet fortitude. In this sequel to Yossi & Jagger, we find Yossi (Ohad Knoller), a 34-year old heart surgeon in Tel Aviv, still mourning the loss of Jagger, his lover from a decade prior. A former fellow officer in the Israeli Defense Force. More than both a little oversensitive and a little overweight, Yossi’s obsessive inability to break from his state of grief leads him to an unending cycle of malaise. Dalliances in outdated pornography, junk food binges, and Internet dating prove to be an unsurprisingly poor substitute for love. Unsure of how to navigate his psychical shortcomings in the dating sphere, he posts photos of his healthier, younger self so as not to scare off potential suitors on dating sites.
As Yossi is Eytan Fox’s (The Bubble, Walk on Water) touching follow-up to the controversial Israeli film illustrating a love story between two male members of the Israeli Defense Forces, the title itself is a gentle reminder of the absence and grief that permeates every angle of this deeply affecting film.
In a number of short vignettes, the audience is able to carefully observe Yossi’s behavior, painting a detailed portrait of his emotional life. Grief underlies the minutiae of his daily existence and weaves together the narrative that focuses on the loss of Jagger (who died in combat in Lebanon) and Yossi’s perennial inability to propel his life forward. With the loss of his sexual partner, Yossi finds that he has also lost a sense of his own sexuality and the confidence that comes with it. Although in the decade since Jagger’s death Israeli social politics have softened, the protagonist is trapped in his own closet of social mores that further prevent his moving forward. As such, the young, doting female nurses at his medical practice who know little of his homosexuality become a considerable point of tension. The psychological agitation reflected in his peers comes to a peak when a skirt-chasing colleague (Lior Ashkenazi) attempts to force him into a three-way tryst in a nightclub toilet stall. It’s certainly cringe-worthy.
Each segment builds slowly, eschewing classic, tried models of narrative propulsion. Thankfully, Yossi avoids warmed over and much too familiar gay-themed tropes. Knoller’s sympathetic and controlled performance supports the subtlety of the narrative arc and certainly makes for some compelling viewing. One of the films’ most powerful moments occurs when Yossi arrives at the apartment of a prospective internet hook-up expecting to see the much younger Yossi featured on his online profile. The film makes a powerful commentary on the transactional nature of relationships during the Internet age. Shame and utter rejection are played out in a series of nuanced reactions from Knoller.
In another emotionally potent segment, a middle-aged patient, the deceased Jagger’s homophobic mother (Orly Silbersatz), cruelly denies Yossi’s attempt to connect over their shared loss. Unable to come to terms with her sons’ relationship, she and her husband ask Yossi to leave. However, no character is simply good or evil, and in a later scene reminiscent of Brokeback Mountain, Yossi is granted access to his lovers perfectly preserved bedroom.
Stirred by grief and memories, he is compelled to take a vacation venturing on a road trip to Eilat for a lonely weekend. With “Death in Venice” as his only companion, the audience has high hopes for the lonely protagonist. The text, a tale of generationally mismatched male lovers, is a clear allusion to potential as he gives a lift to four young soldiers on their military leave, and the situation opens up the possibility of a rejuvenating relationship. Yossi is piqued by Tom (played by Oz Zehavi, the current heartthrob of Israeli TV) a young and openly gay soldier. The journey proves that in order for Yossi to meet the right mate, he must reconnect with himself, allowing the audience to witness his touching, and painstaking process of rebuilding. What unfolds is both romantic and completely unaffected.
In Yossi, Fox allows his viewers to feel the humiliation, shame, and sordid and pitiful lifestyle of its protagonist, Yossi. We sympathize with the characters struggle to escape a melancholy world he has created for himself, perhaps out of guilt over a lost love during battle and his inability to come to terms with his grief. Perhaps the film’s greatest flaw is the under development of some of its ancillary characters (and anyone seeking a Middle East political subtext should look elsewhere). Yet, performances throughout are strong, believable, and it is a true delight to see Ashkenazi (an Israeli cinema and TV icon) as the purveyor of comedic relief. Fox has crafted a pitch-perfect study, which details the arc of one man’s bout with sorrow, demoralizing self-esteem mingled with hope. Understandably, many Israeli films deal with politics, but this is a complex film of thought and gesture as much as dialogue. It is wholly human and universal in its message and appeal.
Fox, no subtle director when it comes to exploring and helping us to understand male/male relationships, scores a hit with his emotional storytelling. Before we know it, the film has eclipsed our sense of time. In addition, Fox has an uncanny way of making us peer into our own souls to unravel the turmoil that lies beneath our skin, ever probing, The audience can interpret prodding and coercing us to take action and resolve our own guilt and pain.
The Upside: Ohad Knoller delivers one of the most nuanced and yet powerful performances this year
The Downside: As with any slow burner character study not a lot happens in a conventional narrative sense
On The Side: This premiered at the TriBeCa Film Festival back in April 2012.
Yossi is currently in NYC theaters and will roll out to new cities soon.