Gay American cinema is full of coming-out and coming-of-age tales, but unlike the Israeli drama “Yossi,” they’re generally not about men in their 30s. It’s difficult to tell how much of Yossi’s (Ohad Knoller) unwillingness to step out of the closet is a cultural trait; after all, Tel Aviv is known for its gay nightlife and the Israeli army allowed gays and lesbians to serve openly long before the American military did. All the same, “Yossi” often plays like an American film about gay characters from 25 or 30 years ago.
“Yossi” is a sequel to the military love story “Yossi & Jagger,” made a decade ago. There, Yossi’s lover died tragically. When “Yossi” begins, the character, now a doctor, still hasn’t gotten over his loss. Much chubbier than he appeared in the first film, Yossi spends his nights looking at porn online and having humiliating hook-up sessions. However, he steps outside his shell when he meets a group of young soldiers on a trip to the desert, and makes his first steps towards finding a new love when one of them, Tom (Oz Zehavi), begins to pursue him.
Director Eytan Fox’s films haven’t shied away from addressing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but compared to documentaries like “The Gatekeepers” and “The Law in These Parts,” they’ve been fairly inept at doing so. Fox sees Israeli politics through a gay lens — in “The Bubble,” he brought us the cinema’s first queer Palestinian suicide bomber, while also depicting the gay scene in Tel Aviv — but that doesn’t really shed any new light on the issue. Fortunately, “Yossi” sticks to affairs of the heart.
It’s not afraid to show just how brutal online dating can be or suggest that Yossi would probably get better results if he stopped pretending to be a younger, thinner version of himself. Fox’s depiction of Yossi’s sex life goes a long way towards explaining the character’s emotional reticence and his reluctance to be honest about his sexuality at work.
A lot has changed in Israel in the 10 years since “Yossi & Jagger”: its lovers would not have to be secretive now. “Yossi” shows a country becoming more accepting of gay culture, yet it also shows the potentially alienating and unpleasant side of that. The young men Yossi meets represent his country’s future, and he can only participate in their freedoms if he forces himself to stop wallowing in grief and loss. The film ends on a moving, achingly ambiguous note, with Yossi getting more emotionally mature but not yet completely out of the woods.