Title: Yossi & Jagger
Director: Eytan Fox
Writer: Avner Bernheimer
Distributer: Strand Releasing
Buy Link Amazon Buy/Watch Link
Genre: Military Romance
Country of Origin/Language: Israel/Hebrew (English Subtitles)
Rating: NR (no nudity and off-screen sex)
Length: 65 minutes
Rating: 4.5 stars out of 5
A Guest Review by Aunt Lynn
One Sentence Review: A bittersweet, short, complex film set in the Israeli military.
Yossi is a serious and strong-featured commander; Jagger is his free-spirited and boyishly handsome charge. They are both soldiers in the Israeli army, and they are in love.
Based on a true story, YOSSI & JAGGER portrays their secret love, set in a remote army base along the Israeli-Lebanese border. In a time of strife and uncertainty, Yossi and Jagger find hope in their unforgettable and emotionally charged romance.
My opinion of Yossi & Jagger has changed over time, in fact, even over the week or so recently when I watched it seemingly countless times. I’ve known of this film’s existence for just over a year and ironically it was me that was preventing me from watching it; I passed it over because I wasn’t in the mood for what I perceived to be a military downer. I’m not sure what made this the right time, but it was a free watch on Amazon for Prime members (otherwise $2.99 rental), I had the time and said “what the heck, I don’t have to wait for it to come to me in the mail.” Well, I was right — it was kinda a military downer, but I was also missing out. While I didn’t love it a first and I still think it isn’t perfect, it has grown on me. A lot.
This brief, poignant, at times humorous, simple yet complex film based on a true story is hard to pin for a classification. It is about young people who must complete mandatory military service and how they handle it. It is about two men who have found each other and try to deal with that in the context of being in a close-quartered military unit. It is about hopes and dreams and desires and fears. It’s about the inability of some love to be open and the differences of opinion on how to handle that between the parties involved. It’s about human nature and loss. All of these things hit a chord with me, and as a package it worked. It has stuck with me and I have found myself thinking of our title heroes when I really should have been doing other things.
Originally made for Israeli television, then playing to sold-out theater audiences in that country (to the surprise of many, and which included many Israel Defense Forces (IDF) soldiers) as well as film festivals internationally in 2003, this small-budget, digitally-shot movie clocking in at just over an hour in length has garnered both critical and viewer acclaim (as well as criticism, of course). The hand-held camera work, which gives the film an almost documentary feel, was an asset in my opinion and it overall felt as if it were a collection of snippets or vignettes. For me, it fit the short format well.
Spanning the course of one day (minus the last few moments) and set in a remote, barren and frozen outpost on the Israeli/Lebanese border, the story opens with a group of tired IDF soldiers digging a burial hole for what turns out to be rancid food from their broken-down fridge. Supervising the work is charismatic second-in-command Lior (aka Jagger, dubbed, we’re told, because he’s like a rock star). Yossi, the unit’s liked, yet more aloof commander, recognizes that the men are exhausted and is trying to get them some rest before the next drill that night. Telling his charges that he and Lior are going on a short tour of the drill site, they head off, but it is only a cover for the two to be together. They are lovers and while their relationship is an open secret to a few, it is next to impossible for them to really together, especially since Yossi will not come out. Arriving at camp while they are gone are the unit’s overseeing Colonel and two female radio operators — outgoing sexpot Goldie, who the Colonel is schtupping, and demure Yaeli, who has a not-so-secret crush on Jagger. Rounding out the love quadrangle is Ophir, another ranking soldier who has eyes for Yaeli (and who tries to discourage her crush because she “isn’t Jagger’s type”). Learning that the evening drill will be a real ambush, the men prepare for their mission, one that will prove to have tragic consequences for many.
In my opinion, the lead actors are perfect for the roles (and actually, the acting overall is pretty decent). The incredibly easy-on-the-eyes Israeli television actor/model/heartthrob Yehuda Levi plays the playful and free-spirited Lior/Jagger exceptionally well, and I admit to having a thing for Ohad Knoller, who brings Yossi to life here. I have seen Knoller in other films, including Fox’s feature-length The Bubble (which I may tackle at a later date, if I can find the strength) and I have found him to be a very natural actor. Interestingly, Knoller, who is straight, spends a lot of time kissing men on screen. 🙂 Both men have won awards for their performances in Yossi and Jagger, including Best Actor for Knoller at the Tribeca Film Festival that year. The scenes in the snow while Yossi and Lior are together are wonderfully acted, and the usually reserved Yossi comes alive with amusement and affection for his lover. Their chemistry is palpable and the situation bittersweet. When Lior gets a transistor radio working and he finds his favorite song, the almost innocent play between them in the situation they’re in was a joy to watch. While conflicted Yossi just can’t hide his humor at Lior’s silly antics, he is quick to shut down when others approach and at times wants Lior to grow up. Lior just wants Yossi’s attention and love, something he feels he may never get.
The unit itself felt real to me — or as real as possible in the short format. We learn little things, like they have been subsisting on beef jerky and chocolate (sometimes together — yum!) and that they continually think about what they are going to do when they get out. We watch the soldiers letting off steam by dancing to techno in the claustrophobic underground quarters, talking sex and generally ragging on each other good-naturedly. It’s full of colorful characters, and my favorite is Yaniv, the cook who dreams of opening a restaurant and has to make due with the meager supplies left over from the fridge disaster (such as “meatball sushi”). He provides some wonderful comic relief, and I love that he wears a “don’t fuck with the cook” apron (where do I get one of those?).
As I said above, my opinion of this film changed over time, and some of the initial issues I had disappeared as I realized that if Fox was to remain true, it really couldn’t be any different. There are many who have wanted a happy ending — me included at first — but Fox, drawing upon a real story of someone he knew while serving in the IDF in 1983, followed that storyline to the end. Tragic, yet real. I also thought that Fox successfully manages to avoid politics and stereotypes with this film (unlike his later effort, The Bubble) and we coast along to a battle with a faceless enemy, which was a relief and also worked with the short format.
It’s interesting to watch films set in Israel, where doing a stint in the IDF is mandatory and as expected as anything else — something you do at eighteen, get out after two to three years depending on gender, then go on with your life. Though I understand from reading reviews and other comments that this film is pretty true to life, it is interesting to me while Israeli law has had an open policy toward LGBT IDF soldiers since 1993 (in fact, my understanding is that the IDF wants its gay soldiers to be out), we’re shown a “Don’t Ask/Don’t Tell” type of situation. It is sad that in the end, Yossi still could not come clean about his relationship with Lior, and I can’t help but wonder if it is different now then it was even when this film was released eight years ago. Perhaps someone familiar with the situation there can comment?
I have gone back and forth about one thing. My single complaint is that I wanted more of our two title heroes. We find Yossi and Lior in mid-relationship, so we do not get to see them meeting, feeling each other out, so to speak, falling in love and establishing what seems to be common conversations about their differences. Though we do get some important insights about their characters — the much freer and charming Lior cannot wait to get out of the IDF, be open in his sexuality, stay in a hotel with just one bed (as opposed to pushing two together) and take Yossi to meet his mother, and Yossi, a career army officer, is not about to come out for him and never promised anything different (and even in an opportune moment Yossi cannot express his feelings for Lior, leaving them at an impasse when the layered tragic ending, which you can see coming through the fog, as the song says, comes into play) — I was looking for more. This would have lent to a deeper character development, which I always desire. Related to this, I think some of — not all, but some — of the focus on the other soldiers and their issues conceivably could have been removed for a bit more spotlight on Yossi and Lior. On the other hand, the look into how the other soldiers act and react was important. Like I said, I’ve gone back and forth over this and in the end, I‘m still undecided.
Regarding the music, which many people ask about: Israeli pop mega diva Rita provides the early version of what I’ve come to think of as the movie’s theme song, Bo (Come, or translated into English Your Soul). Parts of the upbeat song in Hebrew play as a backdrop to a bit of fun as Lior dances around taunting Yossi with his body and own naughty lyrics to the song as his lover pelts him with snowballs. At the end and through the credits, the song is repeated in its entirety in a somewhat more somber version by Israeli openly-gay pop star Ivri Lider. The lyrics fit with the film so perfectly that I can’t separate them out from each other, and I have taken to playing this Lider version (in both Hebrew and English) over and over, much to the amusement of my Jewish partner. Interestingly, the English version — which is a lovely song, don’t get me wrong — is not translated directly as I would have expected, and even though I like actually understanding the words without reading subtitles, it has a subtly-different meaning and I prefer it less.
Bo (Ivri Lider) music video (Hebrew with subtitles):
Your Soul (Ivri Lider) music video (English):
Note that there is a sequel to this film already in the works (in filming now or has just ended, actually, and it should be released sometime in 2012), and while bittersweet for me, I will be very eager to see it. Set ten years after the end of Yossi & Jagger; Yossi is now a doctor struggling to come to terms with his place in life and the loss he suffered a decade before, as well as a changing Israel.
Last thought: I am now ready for a film showing two men falling for each other realistically from one of the twenty-four countries that by law allow LGBT to serve openly. Just sayin’…
In the mood for a short, bittersweet, complex film set in the military and can live with a sad ending? Check out Yossi & Jagger.