This week sees the limited New York release of Yossi, Israeli director Eytan Fox’s remarkable new film, which premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival last April. The film is actually a sequel to an earlier, groundbreaking movie of Fox’s titled Yossi & Jagger (2002), which portrayed a love affair between two IDF soldiers stationed in a remote army outpost on the Lebanese-Israeli border. In the decade that has passed since the release of Yossi & Jagger, there has been no shortage of gay cinema, including crossover films like Brokeback Mountain and Milk as well as smaller, nuanced efforts, such as Mysterious Skin. (Not to overlook earlier gems from the ’90s , such as Love and Death on Long Island, Beautiful Thing, and Gods and Monsters.) There have also been two more films by Fox, Walk on Water (2004) and The Bubble (2006), both of which at least touched on homosexuality. The love that once dared not speak its name practically babbles these days, and the drama of the closet—coming out of it—continues to exert a fascination on straight and gay filmgoers alike.
But despite an ever-greater candidness and graphicness, it seems that too many gay films stay on the surface, content to depict gay life as if it were a universe almost completely unto itself, separate from larger concerns and “heteronormative” people. A case in point is Ira Sachs’ puzzlingly overpraised Keep the Lights On, which was released this fall to almost ecstatic acclaim. I happened to catch it on its second go-round a few weeks ago at Film Forum and found it disappointingly hermetic, a character-based movie with little development of character beyond the erotics of pairing-up. The couple at its center (based on Sachs’ real-life relationship with literary agent Bill Clegg) never came into clear focus for me beyond the bedroom; it doesn’t help, of course, that one of them is a drug addict, but that alone doesn’t explain the strange relational vacancy at the core of the film. Indeed, watching it I found myself growing rigid with what I suppose some of my gay friends would call homophobic judgment at the fact that no one seemed to have anything on their mind except sex, leaving me to wonder at the fate of gay men who are not young and attractive and hot to trot. (“The middle age of buggers is not to be contemplated without horror,” Virginia Woolf confided to her diaries, undoubtedly with her good friend E.M. Forster in mind.)
Now here comes Yossi to the rescue, giving the closeted, isolated character at its center (played by Ohad Knoller, the same actor who played Yossi in Fox’s earlier film) a place in the sun, literally and metaphorically. Not that Yossi is exactly ready for an old-age home; he’s all of 34, but with his softened body, remote affect, and wary eyes he could pass for a decade older. More important, he’s put himself out of the game altogether, living for his work as a cardiologist in a Tel Aviv hospital, subsisting on take-out, stuck in a state of chronic depression. Yossi deflects the romantic interest of Nina, a love-lorn nurse at the hospital (Ola Schur Selektar) and shies away from the invitations of a newly divorced male colleague (Lior Ashknazi) to go out bar-hopping. When he finally brings himself to meet up with someone from an online dating site, the results are excruciatingly humiliating.
And then, impelled in part by a chance encounter with a woman from his past (Orly Silbersatz) who comes in for a cardiac exam, Yossi very slowly begins to thaw. He decides to take the vacation he’s long been putting off, and along the way to Eilat he picks up a quartet of soldiers who have missed their bus connection. Among them is Tom (Oz Zehavi), an openly gay man who has heard of Gustav Mahler (shifting generational tastes in music plays an important role in the film) and who, more important, sees beyond Yossi’s stoic defenses into his repressed longings and vulnerability. The process of watching Tom and Yossi get together has about it a kind of will-they-or-won’t-they exuberant suspense that leaves you rooting for both of them in the way of only the most authentic love stories.
Yossi is beautifully but unfussily shot and is blessed with a script that catches at all that goes unspoken but is deeply felt between people—gay, straight, old, and young. My one proviso before telling you to run out and see it is to rent Yossi & Jagger first, if you haven’t already watched it; it’s not an absolutely necessary pre-requisite but the background of the first film helps widen out the angle of the second. Taken together, the two movies provide a history of changing attitudes toward homosexuality in a macho country that still refers to gay men as “homo” but, on the evidence of Fox’s latest account, these days accepts their open presence in the army, thereby infusing a term that might once have been merely contemptuous with a degree of ironic affection.
Indeed, it is impossible to watch Yossi without being struck by two things: how far Israeli moviemaking has come along, and how far the depiction of gay life and romance has come along. It would be intriguing to try and link the two of them—Israel and gayness, to construct some sort of high-flying theory of difference or marginalization that would account for the fact that so many intriguing movies (enough to have inspired a book on the subject, titled Soldiers, Rebels and Drifters: Gay Representation in Israeli Cinema, by Nir Cohen) about gay life have come out of so small and insular a country—one with a large religious population to boot. And perhaps there is a way in which Israeli filmmakers, precisely because they live in such a besieged and frequently at-odds-with-itself nation, are becoming more and more deft at exploring that which is taboo or merely different than the norm—the famous “Other,” so to speak. But what seems to me a more likely explanation is that Israel is flush with cinematic talent, some of which is gay, and that there is still a sense of excitement about movies as an alternative narrative medium rife with possibilities.
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