Director: Eytan Fox
Writer: Itay Segal
Cast: Ohad Knoller, Oz Zehavi, Lior Ashkenazi, Orly Silbersatz Banai
Distributer: Strand Releasing
Buy Link Amazon Buy/Watch Link
Genre: Contemporary drama/Romance-lite
Country of Origin/Language: Israel/Hebrew (English Subtitles)
Rating: NR (brief nudity and off-screen sex)
Released: 2012/2013 (US)
Length: 85 minutes
Rating: 5 stars out of 5
A Guest Review by Aunt Lynn
One Sentence Review: An excellent character study with themes of loss, change and hope that allows us to find out what happens to a hero from a previous beloved film.
Ten years after Yossi and Jagger, the tragic love story of two IDF officers serving in Lebanon, director Eytan Fox returns to find out what has happened with Yossi. Dr. Yossi Hoffman has become a valued and dedicated cardiologist, often using his work as a way to escape from dealing with his anguished life. He lives alone, still closeted, unable to break through the walls and defenses built around him since the death of his lover. Even his co-workers – a recently divorced doctor, who tries to sweep Yossi into his world of women and drugs, and a lonely nurse, who is secretly in love with him – find it almost impossible to get close to him. His daily routine at the hospital is shaken up by the arrival of a mysterious woman. He follows her, and through the surprising connection they make, receives a rare opportunity to deal with his trauma. Yossi then travels to the southern city of Eilat. Surrounded by the sea and sand dunes he meets a group of young Israeli IDF officers, among them Tom, a handsome and self confident openly gay man, who represents a new world, different from the one that shaped Yossi. Ohad Knoller returns to the role that won him the Best Actor award at Tribeca Film Festival 2003, surrounded by an ensemble of Israel’s finest actors.
I am a big fan of this director’s Yossi & Jagger (read my full review), the prequel of Yossi and a film that has left its mark on Israeli society (apparently the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) now screens it as part of basic training) as well as the international film scene. I knew two years ago that a sequel of sorts – more of a follow-up, really – was in the works focusing on Yossi, the surviving member of the title couple and remember having mixed emotions about it; on one hand I wanted Yossi to move on, find love again and be happy, but on the other I didn’t want to soil the memory of his and Lior’s love and I didn’t want him to find someone else, dammit! As is life, though, I forgot about it until recently Tj reminded me that Yossi was indeed out and what the hell was I waiting for in reviewing it? Thanks Tj! 🙂 So, another freebie for Amazon Prime members had me watching it Saturday afternoon, and I hurried up to put my somewhat lengthy thoughts onto paper. While there is a lot to love about Yossi, I had a few niggles that left me only slightly disappointed.
Yes, you could watch and even appreciate Yossi as a standalone, but I definitely would not recommend it. To really get this film, I strongly advise consuming Yossi & Jagger first. There is a lot – emotions, backstory, character dynamics (especially between Yossi and Lior/Jagger’s parents) – included in this one from the first, as well as the other serving as a good contrast to understanding where Yossi is coming from and how things have changed. It’s just over an hour long, so go gobble that one up first if you already haven’t.
Yossi picks up ten years after end of the previous film. Our title hero, Yossi Guttman (note that the blurb has, among other issues, the wrong last name), is now a closeted and introverted cardiologist (over)working at a hospital in Tel Aviv. Jumping into med school as soon as his military days were over, he has immersed himself in his career and is obviously drowning in the grief he still feels for his deceased lover, Lior. Spending most of his time at the hospital and living a listless, lonely, unhealthy existence when at home, he has isolated himself from everyone despite the attempts of his co-workers who try to pry him out of his shell, and the effects of his suffering are readily apparent. The catalyst for change comes in the form of someone from his past whom he unexpectedly runs into at the hospital. After this, and in combination with enduring one bad experience after another – from rebuffing the advances of a female co-worker, to getting out of a misguided sexual situation a well-meaning colleague orchestrates, to a humiliating encounter with an online date, to an ill-fated visit with Lior’s parents, to a mishap at work – he heads off for a long-overdue holiday with Mahler and his copy of Death in Venice in hand. On the way he gives a ride to four spunky, young IDF officers on leave who have missed their bus, among whom is Tom, an out gay man who will perhaps change his life.
Yossi is a very different film than its predecessor; Yossi & Jagger has an almost documentary feel that covers not just our title characters and their tragic love affair, but also the lives of the other soldiers around them on the Israeli/Lebanese border, touching on several military and political themes. It is at times boisterous, fun and funny, and has a bit of action along with the emotion. The apolitical, subtle, quiet and gentle Yossi, on the other hand, is a longer, emotional character study focusing on what is arguably a war widow(er) stuck in the past, and is shot in more conventional cinematic style. It’s of importance to note that in a genre of hit-or-miss (mostly miss) cinematic, directorial and thespian quality, this one is excellent, and, having seen all of his films, displays Fox’s maturity as a director. This may be his finest work yet. It also shows that once again, the US fails in the ability to produce great gay-themed films.
Additionally, I would argue that even though there are romantic elements, I am not sure I would call Yossi a romance, or maybe I should say that some will consider it a romance, but I didn’t fully buy it (more on this later). Ultimately, though, I am not sure that matters as it succeeds as a heart-breaking, hopeful, sensitive, therapeutic drama with universal themes. It follows me to bed and has given me much to think about.
Yossi is a literal and figurative journey comprised of two parts and what I have decided are his states of wakefulness. The first is what he has been like for literally a decade (asleep), and the second is a change that may lead to his hopeful future (awakening). There is a melancholic air to the film’s first half; between emotionally- and socially-despondent Yossi, crush-laden Nina and Lior’s unhappy parents, it comes close to being an angsty downer that is saved by a several (sometimes cringe-worthy) comic moments, mostly provided by the fantastic Lior Ashkenazi as the womanizing and self-medicating Moti. Though I didn’t find the second part to be all sunshine (despite its setting), rainbows and unicorns necessarily, there is an optimistic feeling that you can’t miss. Much of that is because of the lightness and fun brought on via the banter and hijinks of the young officers, and we finally get to see Yossi smile (and even laugh a time or two).
While the whole film is extremely well-acted by a very talented cast, the best performance comes from Ohad Knoller, who reprises the title character role, and his less-is-more approach grounds the entire thing. Honestly, I don’t know how he wasn’t nominated for awards world-wide for this film. The man is an outstanding actor and doesn’t have to rely on the sparse dialog given to him to make us sympathize with Yossi and yearn for some healing for him. He doesn’t say much – in fact there isn’t much dialog, period – leaving his expressions, his posture, his demeanor, his eyes to tell it all. We are presented with this emotionally withdrawn, suffering man, a cardiologist whose own heart ironically needs attention and someone who is aged before his time; 34-year-old Yossi looks and acts much older, which is something he is called on. Regrets he has, but there is no way he could have acted differently, nor can he imagine a world where he could have, and even now cannot be open about who he is. I have lots of words to describe both Knoller (realistic, raw, honest) and Guttman (vulnerable, repressed, uncomfortable and awkward) in my notes, and this actor and his portrayal broke my heart. Because I love this character, I wanted closure and recovery for him. I wanted to give him a hug and protect him from himself.
And if you saw Yossi & Jagger (or any of his other films), you know that Knoller put on weight for this role, something that has garnered a lot of attention – both positive and negative. First, he is far from obese here, and if you’re like me and prefer your guys with a little meat on them then you’ll be loving his chunky, cuddly physique. Second, in an interview with Out, director Fox said that while Knoller has a tendency to put on weight in between roles, he encouraged him to pork up more and be as unkempt as possible for this film to, among other things, show how out of touch he is with the rest of the world (read the full interview). Lastly, I felt that the extra poundage was a physical representation of the weight of his grief and maybe even his armor against getting too close to anyone, totally in line with his character and what we’re being presented. When we’re shown his extreme discomfort with disrobing in front of Tom, I can’t help but hope he is perhaps shedding some of his grief as well.
One of the themes is change, and something Fox shows us is that while Yossi hasn’t, Israel has. Through Tom we are given a “new” Israel around tolerance for homosexuality, where being gay barely turns heads and is a non-issue in much of contemporary culture and the IDF, whereas Yossi represents the repressed, secret-laden “old” Israel around sexuality and especially homosexuality, where macho was king in the IDF. Yossi cannot imagine an IDF where he could be who he is and that is part of the problem, no? And he also finds it odd that the “new” gays are so open, yet apparently many don’t tell their parents either out of fear or privacy at home.
Yossi is also a not-so-subtle statement of the director’s disdain for gay culture, which he equates with obsession with looks and youth, who you know, where you go. Just watch the mortifying online meet-up scene to get everything you need to know about his feelings on this. To this end it is refreshing and a nice surprise that the beautiful Tom isn’t this way.
Speaking of sweet, gentle, persistent Tom…well, Oz Zehavi portrays the young gay officer attracted to Yossi with maturity and grace. I understand that this role is outside of his norm, where he is known for playing more macho, perpetually bestubbled bad boys, but I believed him here – as apparently many others do as well as it is now assumed (incorrectly) he is gay. I may not have totally gotten what kept his attraction to Yossi (see below for further explanation), but I enjoyed the Zehavi’s performance. Note that according to some interviews I read in prep for this review, we in the US may be seeing more of him as he is actively trying to break into American film and television, already landing a small role on the TNT show, Southland.
That all being said, I had a few small, related issues with this film that did not prevent me from giving it 5 stars:
I spent a lot of time over the last couple of days watching Yossi as I wrote this review, and I have mixed feelings about the second half and ending. On the positive, for me it represents potential – the potential for Yossi to find himself again, to learn about being an open gay man, to open himself up to love again, to learn to love himself, to hope for a better future, to heal. BUT there are two things that make it not completely believable (because the rest of the film is wonderfully credible).
First, I think that Fox spent a bit too much time on showing us how (understandably so) miserable Yossi is – or maybe, in the alternative, the film is too short by about ten or fifteen minutes. It took a very brief time for me to see that this is a grieving man living a terribly lonely life, but Fox stretches it out. And while that forty-five-minute build-up lends to in-depth character development and high emotion, I would have preferred to see more of Yossi’s coming out (both of the closet and his depression), his healing (because that is where we’re here for, yes?), his transformation, how Tom helped with that, and where – if anywhere – that new relationship is going. What we are shown, though, is Yossi torn between interest and (mostly) resisting the attraction even, I would argue, to the abrupt, idealistic, but unrealistic ending. Look, I want an HEA for Yossi as much as anyone and maybe Tom is the person with whom he has it, and maybe I am misinterpreting it, but I am not sure how the film closes is going to give it to him. I can’t even call it an HFN because I didn’t buy it. Now, I also wasn’t looking for a Weekend ending (if you’ve seen that, you’ll know what I’m talking about) either, but something in between? I have a scene in my head of “my” ending, and it only slightly differs (literally a few spoken sentences) from what was presented to us. It would have completely changed it for me, but, then, this is fiction and fantasy, right, so who knows?
Related to this, I felt that the wind-up to this improbable ending was rushed; I wanted a morning-after scene, a discussion about their differences, the talk that led them to Sinai together. I wanted to know why Tom was attracted to Yossi – and before everyone jumps down my throat, for me, Yossi’s physical appearance is low on the list. It’s about the energy Yossi projects. I see why Yossi, despite and in spite of himself, gravitated to Tom; besides being fun, mature, smart, gorgeous and seemingly interested in him, Tom had that certain something Lior had – that joie de vivre – something Yossi desperately misses. I also have no issue with fourteen-year-younger Tom having an obvious attraction to Yossi – hey, we’re attracted to whom we’re attracted, right? – but I wanted to know why Tom actively pursued Yossi. Unlike in Yossi & Jagger, there is not much attractive about Yossi here – especially to someone of Tom’s generation – so did young, fun, smart, gorgeous Tom have a thing for sad, older guys who seemingly lack a sense of humor and self-esteem and rebuff him at every turn? We’re given a short dialog between them about this very close to the end, but I wanted more. Because of this, I am not sure I fully bought the burgeoning romance between them and I can’t help but feel that the relationship is destined to be short-lived, but as I said way above, the romance may not even be the point of the film – at least it isn’t for me – but since my guess that it may the point for others, I wanted to talk about my issues.
To further that, I admit to finding myself wondering why any of the people who kept after Yossi did so. Here is a depressed, overly-serious workaholic who keeps to himself and he is pursued in various forms, romantic and otherwise. We, the audience, have insider knowledge as to the whys of Yossi’s emotional state of affairs and understand, but others do not – nor is he forthcoming in any way, actively shrugging off any interest in him – yet they still come back.
Yossi works very well as a character study, with hope at the perhaps unrealistic ending. A must for fans of Yossi & Jagger, gay-themed fiction and anyone who can sympathize with loss.
UPDATE 07/24/2013: Note that I changed the rating to 5 stars and altered a comment above regarding this. After sleeping on it last night, I decided my niggles weren’t worth the quarter star and Knoller deserves the whole thing.