Israeli love story returns to local screens

Eleven years ago, filmmaker Eytan Fox’s “Yossi and Jagger” told a heartbreaking queer love story between two male soldiers in the Israeli military. Now, with “Yossi” — opening March 8 at the Ritz at the Bourse — the openly gay Fox offers a sequel to his 2002 classic. You don’t need to be familiar with the original film to see the sequel; the backstory unfolds seamlessly and makes sense to viewers who don’t know or don’t remember how the first film ended.

In this new drama, Yossi (Ohad Knoller, reprising his role in an excellent performance) is a cardiologist who jerks off to porn, eats bad take-out and uses old photos of himself to pick up guys on the ’net. When he is forced by circumstances to take a vacation, Yossi unexpectedly meets Tom (Oz Zehavi), a young, handsome, gay soldier, and a potential romance develops.

Fox said in a phone interview from Israel he never thought he’d make a sequel to “Yossi and Jagger,” but is pleased he did.

“I’m so proud of this film — it’s so personal, and I feel so close to it,” he said. “Part of why I made this was an excuse to explore what happened to Yossi, which is what happened to me, to Israel and to the gay community over the past 10 years.”

One dramatic change in the decade since “Yossi and Jagger,” Fox noted, was that the Israeli army has become more accepting and tolerant of queer soldiers.

He observed, “When I was in the Israeli army in 1982, the idea of being openly gay was unheard of. All the people I know who were gay in the army were completely closeted. That world has changed.”

“Yossi” explores the idea that the main character is stuck in the past and has a closeted mindset. When Yossi meets Tom, he slowly begins to understand that there are other ways to live as a gay man.

“Tom represents the idea that you can be happy with who you are,” Fox said. “You can take your clothes off, stand there naked, and say, ‘This is who I am — love me!’” which the attractive Zehavi does in one of the film’s key scenes.

That said, Tom is not out to his family, a complexity Fox found interesting about contemporary queer youth in Israel, and one he incorporated into the film.

“Young hipsters and actors tell me that being gay is a non-issue,” Fox said. “And I say, ‘OK, I get it. It’s much easier now. Tel Aviv and the world are much more accepting.’ But they have problematic relationships with their parents. Telling their parents, ‘This is who I am!’ is difficult.”

The relationship between the heavyset and heavyhearted Yossi and the younger, cuter Tom forms the film’s romantic second act, and Fox said his purpose here was, “to show the older generation reaching out to the younger generation to teach them how to live better.”

He said he is dismayed that audiences question — as the bewildered Yossi does — why Tom is attracted to a sad, lonely, older man.

“I’m almost offended that a young beautiful man can’t fall for a somber, sophisticated older guy. That’s the wrong way to see desire. Tom sees that Yossi can offer him more than his fun friends can. He’s a doctor who is smart and reads literature and needs saving. That’s something Tom wants to do — save someone who is in distress.”

Distress in a relationship is something Fox, Knoller and the film’s screenwriter, Itay Segal, all experienced firsthand while making the film. Knoller, who is straight, went through a divorce between “Yossi” films, while Segal, who is gay, broke up with his boyfriend and was mourning his relationship. Similarly, Fox was having a crisis with his partner of 23 years, Gal Uchovsky. (The pair ended their professional relationship after the 2006 film “The Bubble”).

The loneliness Fox faced during this period informed the film.

“Living in an empty apartment, eating bad take-out food, watching a lot of porn, falling asleep in front of boring TV and waking up to another day of loneliness [as Yossi does] wasn’t difficult for me to relate/connect to,” he confessed.

“Ohad and I spoke a lot about the whole feeling of being alone and the fear and confusion that comes with that, and the questions of what being alone brings to your heart and mind. We shared those feelings — plus Itay and I were exposed to the new gay world of Internet dating.”

One of the more interesting scenes early in the film has Yossi meeting a man online for sex, only to have the encounter go badly because of Yossi’s poor physical image and poorer self-image.

Several of the characters in “Yossi” — from his hospital colleague Moti (Lior Ashkenazi) as well as Tom — suggest that Yossi would feel better if he would just get laid. It’s a facile curative for a depressed man grappling with survivor’s guilt, and being mostly closeted, but the film emphasizes Yossi finding sexual fulfillment as a means to emotional happiness.

“I didn’t think of it that way,” Fox responded to the claim, “but he does need to get laid to feel better about himself and life.”

The filmmaker then described the real point he wanted to make with his film.

“I wanted to show a person stuck in a bad place who frees himself. Sometimes it’s connected to moving, going in a new direction or to new places. Changing new things in your life — the scenery, the city you live in, which for Yossi is claustrophobic — and going to the desert and meeting new people.”

Now the question that arises is, will Fox make a sequel to “Yossi” in 10 years?

The filmmaker laughed and answered, “That might be another exercise — to see what happened to Tom in 10 years!”

“Yossi” opens March 8 at the Ritz at the Bourse for a one-week engagement.