Yossi explores sexuality, loneliness, and the military

A lonely man's attempt to emerge from crushing sadness: Ohad Knoller (left), Oz Zehavi
Strand Releasing

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 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. 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. 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.

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 out company but pleased when one of the military twentysomethings says hello, are the film's best, adroitly depicting a lonely man's tentative steps toward emerging from his crushing sadness.

Knoller navigates his role so beautifully that, perversely, the new love interest he meets in the final act feels like an interloper, a forceful intrusion into a delicately built study of anguish. 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.

To wish Yossi anything but a happy ending would be heartless. Yet to wrap up his story so glibly still stings, betraying the complexity we've come to love him for.

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