Yossi, the central character in the new eponymous Israeli movie, has changed over the past 10 years, and so have Israel and the world.
In 2002, director Eytan Fox introduced him in “Yossi & Jagger,” which became Israel’s highest-grossing film abroad, up to that time.
The title’s two protagonists are Israeli army officers — Cmdr. Yossi and Lt. Jagger — manning an outpost on a freezing mountain during the first Lebanon war, in the early 1980s.
Both are gay, and they carry on a clandestine affair in an era when love between two men was unheard of, or at least unspoken, in the macho army. At the end, Jagger is killed by enemy fire.
In a review of “Yossi & Jagger,” the Jewish Journal noted that “seldom has the boredom, tension and camaraderie of war been portrayed more realistically and economically than in this film.”
Now Fox picks up the thread again, 10 years later, in “Yossi.” The warrior has become a cardiologist at a Tel Aviv hospital, where he is respected for his professional skill, but closed off emotionally and socially from his fellow doctors and nursing staff.
Yossi, like actor Ohad Knoller, who portrays him in both films, has become flabbier as well as morose, all the while still mourning the fallen Jagger. He rejects the advances of a lonely nurse, and an invitation from a colleague, Dr. Hoffman, to pick up a couple of babes at a strip club, doesn’t work out either.
Hoffman is played by Lior Ashkenazi, one of Israel’s finest actors, who previously starred in Joseph Cedar’s “Footnote” as an ambitious Torah scholar.
The desperate Yossi goes online to find a gay partner, only to be thoroughly humiliated during the encounter.
A workaholic, Yossi starts going downhill, professionally and emotionally, to the point that the head of his hospital orders him to take a break and go on a vacation.
Yossi heads by car for the beaches and other attractions of Eilat. Along the way, he offers a ride to four young soldiers who have missed their bus back to their base.
One of them is Tom (played by Israel’s current heartthrob Oz Zehavi), who is openly and cheerfully gay. He quickly recognizes Yossi’s sexual orientation and depression and initiates a relationship with the surprised and wary Yossi.
In the warm, mellow environment of Eilat, the new lovers dream of a permanent paradise, while realizing its impossibility in the real world.
In “Yossi,” as in its predecessor, a gay relationship plays a central role, but that is by no means the movies’ totality.
During a phone conversation, Fox, a native New Yorker who moved to Israel when his parents made aliyah, put his films into a larger context.
“The earlier Yossi, fighting in the Lebanon war, grew up and was a victim of the old Israel,” Fox said. “It was a macho society, in which everyone was expected to be straight. Yossi himself believes that it was impossible to come out of the closet, especially in the army.”
Tom, the openly gay soldier Yossi meets in the second film, has none of these hang-ups and represents the face of the new Israel, the director observed.
Fox, the grandson of Polish immigrants to New York, is a prolific creator of movies and television programs and teaches at New York University’s satellite campus in Tel Aviv.
He and his partner, Gal Uchovsky, who have collaborated on a number of films, are perhaps the most famous gay couple in Israel.
Fox told the story of how, in one of his classes, he described a gay movie character who is pitied because he “can never get married, never have children and will have few moments of happiness.”
The filmmaker was challenged by one of his young students, who was puzzled by this depiction and dialogue — and no wonder.
“In today’s Tel Aviv,” Fox explained, “you see gay couples every day who are married, happy and raising kids,” and the director adds that his and other movies have helped change attitudes throughout the world.
He cited a letter from a woman in Iran, who wrote that she had been taught to believe that Zionists were the offspring of Satan and that her mission was to kill them.
Then she saw one of Fox’s earlier films, “The Bubble,” on the Internet. The film is about two men — one Israeli and the other Palestinian — falling in love, and the Iranian woman had a change of heart.
“I realized I was wrong,” she wrote, “and I reconsidered how I should look at life.”
Fox sees a similarity between Jews and gays in gaining general acceptance. “Jews were outsiders, and gays were outsiders,” he said, “but they both are becoming integral parts of society.”
During the interview, the question came up as to whether in an era when openly gay couples rarely encounter raised eyebrows in Los Angeles or Tel Aviv, Fox might turn to making a movie with only straight characters.
“I would not consider directing such a film,” he responded. Through his gay protagonists, he added, he is able to explore the full range of human relationships and struggles.
On the other hand, Fox said he realizes that not everybody is gay (or, as he put it in another context, “Nobody is perfect.”).
He described his newest film, opening this year, as “a romantic comedy” titled “Bananot” (Hebrew for “bananas,” but also a slang term for attractive girls. In English-speaking countries, the title will be “Cupcakes.”).
In that film, five young Tel Avivians without show-biz experience decide to enter the annual Eurovision international song festival. Of the group, Fox said, “Three are straight men, one is a gay man, and one is a lesbian.”
“Yossi” opens Feb. 8 at Laemmle’s Playhouse in Pasadena and Town Center in Encino, the Sundance Sunset theater in West Hollywood and Edward’s University Town Center in Irvine.
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