In the decade since Israeli director Eytan Fox made Yossi & Jagger, the precursor to his sublimely tender new drama Yossi, Israel has undergone two significant changes. A tacit and active homophobia has given way, at least in the open cultural climate of Tel Aviv, to a matter-of-fact acceptance of gay rights. At the same time, Israeli cinema has bloomed, becoming a thriving international presence in just about every genre.
True, Israeli film leans toward the arty (Footnote) or toward sober political self-scrutiny about the nation's conflict with the Palestinians; no fewer than two documentaries about the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza have been short-listed for Oscars this year.
Fox, by contrast, is Israel's most beloved pop filmmaker. He's openly gay, and his films are colorful, boisterously irreverent box-office hits whose small-p politics also catch the anguished spirits of younger generations who have little use for the pioneering collectivism of their elders, yet still yearn to create guiding values for their infinitely more fragmented lives.
Fox's 2004 thriller, Walk on Water, plunges a Mossad hit-man into a crisis that forces him to re-examine the meaning of the Holocaust and his own desiccated existence. The Bubble (2006) repurposes the romantic comedy to examine a gay love affair between an Israeli and a Palestinian against the background of alienated Tel Aviv youth. And Yossi & Jagger (2003) is framed by a love affair between two male soldiers during Israel's war with Lebanon — an affair that ends with the death of one lover in a botched ambush.
Yossi & Jagger told the story of a secret love; its sequel turns on a painfully gradual coming-out. Ten years on, the titular survivor (played, as before, by a very good Ohad Knoller) is a cardiologist with his own heart frozen in grief — cheesy symbolism that Fox pulls off with cheerful aplomb.
Though he's competent at work, Yossi functions at just above zombie level in his private life. His bodily pleasures are furtive and tawdry, and not even those who pass for friends — a lonely nurse with a crush (Ola Schur-Selektar) and a colleague who tries to drag him into the sex-and-drugs party scene (the excellent Lior Ashkenazi, who starred in Walk on Water and last year's Footnote) — can rouse Yossi from his torpor.
Until, that is, two somewhat creakily staged chance meetings promise either to make his misery worse or to set him free. A heart patient (Orly Silbersatz) who turns out to be his dead lover's mother and is, like him, stranded in quiet sorrow, inadvertently confronts Yossi with a long-delayed decision about whether to reveal his past with her son.
And then, on a forced vacation in the resort town of Eilat, Yossi meets the model-handsome Tom (Oz Zehavi), a proudly out gay soldier whose happy-go-lucky hedonism and confident overtures take the older man by surprise. As does the casual acceptance, unthinkable during Yossi's own military service, of Tom's sexual identity by his comically macho fellow soldiers.
Funny, exuberant and shamelessly seductive (the soundtrack is by Keren Ann, who shows up to perform wistful covers of the Israeli songs Yossi and Fox grew up with), Yossi is an unabashedly populist entertainment with a spirit conciliatory enough to melt the heart of any naysayer. In Yossi's slow awakening to a world in which he has little to hide lies the moving story of a man emerging from grief and secrecy, and by extension a celebration of a society maturing into tolerance.
That's no fantasy: I just returned from Tel Aviv, where gay life is a nonchalantly urbane presence and no one turns a hair. Yet tucked into Fox's rejoicing is the articulation of qualms that runs through all his movies, taking inventory of the price in urban alienation that Israel has paid for jettisoning at least some of its founding values.
In Yossi's nightmarish sexual encounters — there's no reasonable way to call them dates — with a woman pushed on him by his boozy colleague, and then with a hard-bodied gay entrepreneur obsessed with appearances, lies a whiff of Fox's distaste for the cold hedonism and isolation that lie in wait for the free spirits — gay or straight — of an open society. There's an ambiguous moment late in the movie, when Yossi asks Tom if he's come out to his parents, that made me squirm. "I haven't," he says. "It's none of their business." Really?