BY GARY M. KRAMER | Ten years ago, Eytan Fox’s “Yossi and Jagger” told a heartbreaking queer love story about two soldiers in the Israeli military. Now, with “Yossi,” the openly gay Fox offers a sequel to his 2002 classic. Familiarity with the original film is not essential for seeing the sequel; the backstory unfolds and makes sense for viewers who don’t know or don’t remember how the first film ended.
In this new drama, Yossi (Ohad Knoller, reprising his role in an excellent performance), is a cardiologist who jerks off to porn and uses old photos of himself to pick up guys on the net. When he is forced by circumstances to take a vacation, Yossi unexpectedly meets Tom (Oz Zehavi), a young, handsome, and openly gay soldier. A potential romance develops.
Fox admitted in a phone interview from Israel that he never thought he would make a sequel to “Yossi and Jagger,” but he is pleased that he did.
“I’m so proud of this film — it’s so personal, and I feel so close to it,” he said. “Part of why I made this was an excuse to explore what happened to Yossi, which is what happened to me, to Israel, and to the gay community over the past ten years.”
A decade after Jagger, Yossi comes alive for real
The Israeli army’s greater acceptance of queer soldiers, the filmmaker said, is one of the dramatic changes that took place during the decade since “Yossi and Jagger.”
“When I was in the Israeli army in 1982,” he observed, “the idea of being openly gay was unheard of. All the people I know who were gay in the army were completely closeted. That world has changed.”
“Yossi” explores the way in which the main character is stuck in the past and has a closeted mindset. When Yossi meets Tom, he slowly begins to understand there are other ways to live as a gay man.
“Tom represents the idea that you can be happy with who you are,” Fox said. “You can take your clothes off, stand there naked, and say, ‘This is who I am — love me!’” which the attractive Zehavi does in one of the film’s key scenes.
That said, Tom is not out to his family, a wrinkle Fox finds interesting about contemporary queer youth in Israel.
“Young hipsters and actors tell me that being gay is a non-issue,” Fox explained. “And I say, ‘OK, I get it. It’s much easier now, that’s true. Tel Aviv and the world are much more accepting.’ But they have problematic relationships with their parents. Telling their parents ‘This is who I am!’ is difficult for them.”
The relationship between the heavyset and heavyhearted Yossi and the younger, cuter Tom forms the film’s romantic second act, and, interestingly, Fox said his purpose here was “to show the older generation reaching out to the younger generation to teach them how to live better.” The filmmaker is dismayed that audiences question — as does the bewildered Yossi — why Tom is attracted to a sad, lonely older man.
“I’m almost offended that a young beautiful man can’t fall for a somber, sophisticated older guy,” Fox said. “That’s the wrong way to see desire. Tom sees that Yossi can offer him more than his fun friends can. He’s a doctor who is smart and reads literature and needs saving. That’s something Tom wants to do — save someone who is in distress.”
Distress in a relationship is something Fox, Knoller, and the film’s screenwriter, Itay Segal, all knew firsthand while making the film. Knoller, who is straight, went through a divorce between “Yossi” films, while Segal, who is gay, broke up with his boyfriend and was mourning his relationship. Similarly, Fox was having a crisis with his partner of 23 years, Gal Uchovsky. (The pair ended their professional relationship after the 2006 film “The Bubble”). The loneliness Fox faced during this period informed the film.
“Living in an empty apartment, eating bad takeout food, watching a lot of porn, falling asleep in front of boring TV, and waking up to another day of loneliness wasn’t difficult for me to relate or connect to,” he confessed. “Ohad and I spoke a lot about the whole feeling of being alone and the fear and confusion that comes with that, and the questions of what being alone brings to your heart and mind. We shared those feelings — plus Itay and I were exposed to the new gay world of Internet dating.”
One of the more interesting scenes early in the film has Yossi meeting a man online for sex, only to have the encounter go badly because of Yossi’s looks and poor self-image.
Several characters in “Yossi” — from his hospital colleague Moti (Lior Ashkenazi) to Tom — suggest that Yossi would feel better if he would just get laid. It may seem a facile cure for a mostly closeted depressed man grappling with survivor’s guilt, but in finding sexual fulfillment Yossi becomes open to happiness.
“I didn’t think of it that way,” Fox when asked if that was his message. “But he does need to get laid to feel better about himself and life.”
The filmmaker then talked about what he intended his film to say.
“I wanted to show a person stuck in a bad place who frees himself,” Fox said. “Sometimes it’s connected to moving, going in a new direction, or to new places. Changing new things in your life — the scenery, the city you live in, which for Yossi is claustrophobic — and going to the desert and meeting new people.”
Will Fox make a sequel to “Yossi” in another decade? The filmmaker laughed and said, “That might be another exercise to see what happened to Tom in ten years!”
YOSSI | Directed by Eytan Fox | Strand Releasing | Opens Jan. 25 | Angelika Film Center | 18 W. Houston St. at Lafayette St. | angelikafilmcenter.com