Yossi is an early spring breeze of a film – too delicate to be substantial but definitely holding the promise of warmth. That’s the trademark of Israeli director Eytan Fox who, a decade ago, brought the same gently observational style to Yossi & Jagger, a tale of two gay soldiers daring to embrace love if not to speak its name. That affair ended tragically, and this sequel picks up the survivor 10 years and many pounds later. He’s gained a lot weight and lost his prettiness, but the emotional wounds haven’t changed – they’re as raw as ever.
Having bolted straight from his army stint to med school, Yossi (Ohad Knoller) is a cardiologist now and a card-carrying workaholic, often bunking down in the hospital between shifts. When obliged to return to his spartan apartment, the doctor eats alone, dabbles in a little soft porn alone, and halfheartedly cruises an online dating site alone, occasionally uploading an old photo of himself back in his slim days. In public, he’s got a foot out of the closet, although not so far as to discourage the nurses’ amorous advances, which he politely deflects with a vague and forlorn, “It’s complicated.”
Essentially, the picture unfolds as a series of set-pieces designed to explore those complications, to weigh the burden of melancholy that he totes around like a hiker’s backpack. A few of these sequences seem arch and contrived. For example, on the strength of that outdated photo, chubby Yossi arranges a date with some body-beautiful cliché who dismisses him with a shrug of his bulging pecs. Equally clumsy is the moment when a sympathetic male colleague, recently divorced and aggressively horny, tries to entice him into a three-way in the bathroom stall of a noisy bar. Yossi declines the invitation, as do we.
The redemptive moments are softer, more subtle, with a shimmer of poignancy. The best comes when, taking advantage of a chance encounter, Yossi steels himself to visit the mother and father of his dead lover – they remain unaware of their son’s sexual orientation. Where others would pour out their hearts, the cardiologist opens his only in measured degrees, allowing the parents just the briefest glimpse into the painfully concealed truth. The scene plays out as a subdued study in competing griefs, yet conducted on both sides across a silent minefield of repressed anger.
So, still shouldering that backpack, Yossi hits the road for a mandated vacation at a beach resort. There, he curls up poolside with (rather too conveniently) a copy of Death in Venice and, just like Thomas Mann’s obsessed protagonist, keeps staring fondly at a blond embodiment of classic beauty – in this case, a soldier of the younger generation, free to be openly gay and thus to stare back, and eventually to encourage the older man to stand proudly naked beside him, shedding all his garments and some of his grief.
I know, that sounds arch too, but thanks to Knoller’s performance, it doesn’t feel that way. Seldom off camera, he anchors a movie that might otherwise float away. How he does it is incongruous. Although his figure may be burly and his angst heavy, there’s nevertheless a lightness in his manner, in his half-smiles and his knowing eyes. The script would suggest these are just the half-smiles of resignation, but the actor rises above the material to hint at something more profound: They’re a brave way of life, a recognition that joy and sorrow alike are cyclical, as certain to depart as to return. Both leave their marks equally and, over time, inseparably.