‘Yossi’ is touching follow-up to tragic Israeli drama

By Cate Marquis, Special to the Jewish Light

Eytan Fox has been among the best, and most successful, Israeli directors of recent years, with thoughtful international hits such as “Walk on Water” and “The Bubble.” Ten years after Fox’s tragic breakout hit “Yossi and Jagger,” which explored the relationship between two closeted gay Israeli soldiers, one of whom is killed during the Lebanon war, Fox  examines how things have changed in the touching “Yossi.”

Ohad Knoller won a best actor award at the Tribeca Film Festival for his performance as Yossi in that first film; this latest was nominated for best picture at Tribeca this year. Although “Yossi” is a follow-up to an earlier film, there is no need to have seen “Yossi and Jagger” to enjoy this ultimately human tale.

Now a doctor, Yossi Hoffman (Knoller) is still closeted and lonely, burying himself in his work as a cardiologist. When Jagger’s mother Varda (Israeli actress/singer Orly Silbersatz) comes into the hospital for a check up, he makes an excuse to be the one to treats her, in a sequence that reveals he’s still mourning for his dead lover. Despite the occasional “date,” Yossi prefers to be alone, where he can revisit the past and avoid the present. It’s only when his boss forces Yossi to take a vacation that he encounters a group of young soldiers, including the confident, openly gay Tom (Oz Zehavi).

Fox’s great skill as a director allows him to build complicated, layered characters who face situations that are at once realistic and as complex as the larger subject matter they symbolize. However, “Yossi” is a simpler, smaller film than “Walk on Water” or “The Bubble.” Fox’s sure-handed touchshows he knows something of lonely lives. The film is an exploration of leaving the past behind as well as a gentle coda to the earlier film. It is a touching, human story more than anything.

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Knoller turns in a fine performance as Yossi, a man so steeped in his sadness and insular life he hardly speaks. Yet in the actor’s hands, his character tugs at the heart with an underlying sweetness. Director Fox has a knack for getting nuanced performances from his actors but lightens the mood by the insertion of the unexpected or even absurdly comic touch.

On his way to the Sinai, a vacation destination that the doctor picked both because it is dangerous and he had never been there, he stops at a seaside resort in Eilat, a place he and Jagger had talked of visiting. There is a surprisingly poignant shot where the melancholy doctor rides up in a glass elevator, with a view overlooking a sky-blue pool. He shares the elevator with a waiter carrying a tray with two candy-colored cocktails with little umbrellas. The shot is brief but seems to speak volumes about the doctor’s inner life and his disconnect from light-heartedness or enjoyment of the world, typical of Fox’s skill in composing a shot that is comically ironic yet moving. Like some of his earlier films, “Yossi” has some male nudity and gay sexual situations, although the scenes are handled with great emotional tenderness.

Overall, “Yossi” offers a warm, touching performance by Knoller and skillful and visual directing in a thoughtful film on both moving on with life and how attitudes changed.