Monday, August 5, 2013

MOVIE OF THE WEEK: Yossi


This week I watched my first double feature in a long time, pairing up Eytan Fox's gay romance films "Yossi & Jagger" and "Yossi". Now, "Yossi & Jagger" may be the more acclaimed film but from my perspective, the sequel "Yossi" was the more satisfying film. Granted, "Yossi" probably had an unfair disadvantage from the start. To elaborate, I was so unimpressed with the production values of the original film that I was unable to fully submit to its charms. As a cinephile, I am aware that we need to appreciate independent filmmaking, but the ultra low-budget style really took me out of the film. The "home video" look unfortunately accentuated any flaws in an otherwise commendable film. Due to its short running time (65 minutes), the story is condensed and as such, the romantic core of the film came across as slightly vapid and saccharine. Without the gloss of quality cinematography, the perceived quality of the acting also suffered. I could tell that the cast was capable, but any cracks in their performances were made glaringly noticeable. Again, this was mainly an issue in the dialogue between the title characters. In the end, I found myself more interested in the relationships among the wider group of soldiers and friends, rather than the main couple.
Enough about "Yossi & Jagger" though, this review is about the 2012 film "Yossi". When I started the film, I was immediately happy to see its improved professional production values. I then realized that the legacy of the Yossi and Jagger's romance was probably more potent than I initially thought. I was truly anxious to find out what happened to Yossi. As you may be able to surmise from the title, this sequel continues with Yossi's life after he has lost Jagger in the first film. It's 10 years later and Yossi has found professional success as a doctor. Unfortunately, he has been unable to recover from the tragic death of his love and has become a lonely, antisocial man. A chance encounter with Jagger's mom (beautifully rendered by Orly Silbersantz Banai) stirs up some new vigour in his life though, setting the plot in motion.
As we get to know Yossi, the importance of the previous film becomes even more clear. The hopeful enthusiasm of his younger days is long gone and his loss dictates his present day apathy for life. It's a risky plot decision, asking the viewer to become invested in a lead character who is steadfast in his resistance to the joys of life. The film's detractors tend to emphasize this point and I honestly can't fault them for that. Even though I did empathize with his attitude, I also found it strange that he could be so active in his educational/professional pursuits and yet be so listless with his social life and basic happiness. What Ohad Knoller manages to do with the character given this challenge, is therefore remarkable. This is a very specific type of character and he forces you to latch on to his performance, rather than the character itself. While the character is dull, the actor is anything but. Knoller makes the character extremely endearing and this is why Yossi is so frustrating. You feel his sadness, low self-esteem and hopelessness and you desperately want to shake him out of his rut.
Thankfully, Yossi does make some baby steps towards self-improvement as the film progresses. He takes a road trip that results in him befriending a group of young soldiers who encourage him to join them for a fun stay at their hotel. The original film reveals its importance once more, as these men are clearly reminiscent of Yossi's army days with Jagger and their other companions. With this nostalgic spark, Yossi slowly opens up (emphasis on slowly), even forming an attraction with the group's handsome token gay played by Oz Zehavi (a perfect casting). The slow development of this relationship is again frustrating, but Knoller's firm commitment to the truth of this character's personality is something to be admired.
Yossi may not be the most compelling of lead characters and the film's somewhat bleak outlook on life after tragedy may be too irksome for some. On the other hand, the personal intimacy of the film's character study is brilliantly executed. It may not be a fully satisfying screenwriting achievement, but Knoller's sincere portrayal and the strong supporting cast make this film worthwhile.

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