For the past two decades, Eytan Fox has been Israel's foremost chronicler of gay life — and the homoeroticized military — in the land of milk and honey. With Yossi, he has pulled off the rare feat of making a sequel that surpasses the original. Released in 2002, the director's breakthrough hit, Yossi & Jagger, centered on the clandestine relationship between two male Israel Defense Force soldiers. Following an ambush in Lebanon, Yossi, a principled yet deeply closeted commander, watches the more flamboyant Jagger (a nickname that suits his pop-star good looks) die in his arms. Ten years later, Yossi powerfully probes the grief that still consumes the surviving ex-soldier, now working as a physician in Tel Aviv. Like the title character, Fox too has changed: This frequently unsubtle director, whose placard-waving is typified by a rave for Middle East peace on a beach in his last movie, The Bubble (2006), here shows welcome signs of nuance.
Now 34, cardiologist Yossi (Ohad Knoller) has thrown himself into his work, so much so that his hospital supervisor gently upbraids him for not taking a vacation. When not on call, the physician finds comfort in greasy takeout noodles and DVDs of man-on-man soft-core. Still closeted, Yossi rebuffs the advances of a smitten nurse and endures a humiliating night on the town with Moti (Lior Ashkenazi), a recent divorcé self-medicating with dope and bar-bathroom hookups. "You look like an operating table," Moti tells his bleary-eyed friend. Yet those aren't the most insulting words he'll hear. Yossi endures even more demeaning treatment from an online date, an oily bar-owning muscle queen clearly disgusted that the doctor doesn't match his much-slimmer profile photo. The discordance might surprise — and move — viewers too. Significantly bulkier than he was in Yossi & Jagger (and in The Bubble), Knoller, who might have packed on pounds specifically for this role, moves with the weariness of someone burdened by shame and sorrow.
Hoping to assuage his pain, Yossi unexpectedly shows up at the home of his true love's parents after earlier treating the ticker of Jagger's mother, who can't quite recall the doctor's face (the characters meet briefly at the end of Yossi & Jagger). It's an act of candor, nicely played by all three actors, that leads to more hurt — but it also spurs the MD to take some time off.
En route to the Sinai Peninsula, Yossi offers to give a lift to four rambunctious IDF soldiers who have missed their bus to Eilat, a resort town where they're enjoying some R&R. After dropping off this rowdy quartet — the best-mannered of whom, Tom (Oz Zehavi), appreciates the Mahler playing in his host's car — Yossi nixes his plans to cross the Israel/Egypt border, checking into the hotel where the army guys are staying. Bundled up in a terry cloth robe, the doctor reads Death in Venice poolside, dines solo, and passes the evenings nursing an umbrellaed cocktail while taking in the hotel's spectacularly tacky revues.
The scenes of Yossi at the inn, not actively seeking company but pleased when one of the military 20-somethings says hello, are the film's best, adroitly depicting a lonely man's tentative steps toward emerging from his crushing sadness. Written by first-time scripter Itay Segal, Yossi doesn't confuse melancholy with mawkishness (unlike, say, Tom Ford's ghastly, fussy 2009 take on Christopher Isherwood's A Single Man). Yossi still finds solace in small, corny pleasures, apparent in the beatific grin on his face as he sits at a table for one during an Israel-oldies show (performed by Keren Ann).
Knoller navigates his role so beautifully — even at his most despondent and abject, Yossi always maintains some dignity — that, perversely, the new love interest who shares screen time with him in the final act feels like an interloper, a forceful intrusion into a delicately built study of anguish and the difficulty of reconciling the past with the future. This concluding section stands as Yossi's most strident. The sloganeering dialogue about gay life then and now unfortunately proves that Fox hasn't fully abandoned his cudgel.
Yet for many of the film's brisk 84 minutes, Fox eclipses his earlier work — and several other same-sex tragedies — by immersing us in his protagonist's quiet turmoil. To wish Yossi anything but a happy ending would be heartless. Yet to wrap up his story so glibly still stings, betraying the complexity for which we've come to love him.