Yes and No. Films Reviewed: Yossi, No.
Hi, this is Daniel Garber at the Movies for culturalmining.com and CIUT 89.5 FM, looking at high-brow and low-brow movies, indie, cult, foreign, festival, documentary, genre and mainstream films, helping you see movies with good taste, movies that taste good, and how to tell the difference.
This week I look at two foreign-language films, both dramas about men in their thirties with a tragic past but who may be able to find a better future. Both are dramas, one from Israel, the other from Chile.
Dir: Eytan Fox
Yossi (Ohad Knoller) is a guy in his mid-thirties trying to deal with his buried past. When he served his compulsory duty in the Israeli army he had had a secret relationship with another soldier. His lover, Jagger, died in his arms, and he’s been living with that for the past decade.(This movie is a sequel to Fox’s Yossi and Jagger, which I haven’t seen yet.)
Now he’s a doctor, a cardiologist. He’s still in love with a dead man but is surrounded by sex, everywhere he looks. A pretty nurse he works with lets him now she’s ready to sleep with him. An aggressive and popular doctor he works with, Moti (Lior Ashkenazi), is determined to get him laid. Yossi is gay but in the closet, and fights off all the advances at work. But when he tries his hand at on-line pickups he finds gay life even more alienating and cruel than the false front he puts on at the hospital. He is crushed when a potential date rudely rejects him for putting up 3-year-old photos on his dating profile (which makes him even more self-conscious for having let himself gain a bit of weight).
When an older woman appears at his hospital, he recognizes her as his lover’s mother. But his attempt at closure — letting Jagger’s parents know the truth about his relationship with their dead son – doesn’t work out quite like he’d hoped. His work begins to suffer, his life feels meaningless, the world seems pointless and superficial. And when he flubs up an operation, he’s sent off for a paid vacation to “get better” from his depression.
He drives away. On the road, he meets a group of young soldiers, who remind him of his own friends a decade earlier. As a fellow veteran (possibly from the same company) he gives them a lift to a beach resort. And, since he enjoys their company, especially the well-groomed and witty Tom (Oz Zehavi), he decides to stay on.
Like the gay character in Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice, he spends his days staring longingly at the young men, especially the openly gay Tom splashing around in the swimming pool and on the beach. He sends off subtle hints of his “gayness”: he carries the book, Death in Venice, to the beach and listens to Mahler in public.
But when Tom, never one for subtlety, hits on him, Yossi refuses to pick up on it or even acknowledge it. He won’t take off his shirt at the beach, and, in his blue funk, he can’t imagine anyone actually wanting or desiring him. Will Yossi ever come out of his shell?
This is a slow-moving, subtle, tender, (and somewhat depressing) follow-up to the director’s earlier drama Yossi and Jagger. It picks up where that film left off, but 10 years later. Not having seen that film, it’s hard for me to judge Yossi’s backstory, but for much of this movie, he seems so blah, so closed-to-the-world and flat and uninteresting that I wonder why all the other characters in the movie seem to be so sexually entranced by him, throwing themselves at him, left and right.
That’s not fair — he is actually a charming, modest and soft-spoken character, and by the end you do feel for him. Yossi is really two movies; the first is a troubling look at a depressed man facing his past. The second his possible start on a new course. The second half is much easier to take.
Dir: Pablo Larrain
Augusto Pinochet was the notorious right-wing dictator of Chile since he toppled their government. The coup happened in 1973, when the military overthrew the democratically elected Salvador Allende. Backed by Operation Condor his government killed thousands of people, arrested 80,000, dropped lots of out of helicopters, torture, arrest, forced disappearances…lost more things like that. Nice guy…
OK flash-forward 15 years to 1988. Things have calmed down, Chicago-School neo-liberal trade laws are taking off, and exports are thriving. Pinochet feels he is secure in his office, (he is fully in control) so, to polish up his international image he decides to have a referendum: Yes means he will continue; No means they will have a national, democratic election, the first since the coup.
This is where the movie begins.
As part of the plebescite, he offers 15 minutes of TV-time a day for the opposition (the NO side) to have their say. What this means is his government has (in addition to their own allotted 15 minutes for YES) another 11 hours and 45 minutes a day, since the military government and its corporate cronies have almost blanket control of the media. Except those 15 minutes. So official broadcasts are full of “happy patriotic Chileans” standing military-style outside the factories and fishing boats, waving to the Great Leader.
The No side needs to find someone to lead their campaign. But who would want to stick their neck out when it’s so easy to get your head chopped off? Instead, they go for a talented, apolitical, mainstream ad exec named Rene (Gael Garcia Bernal). Rene has his Chilean street creds – his parents were leftists who fled to Mexico after the coup – but here’s Rene back in Chile, living comfortably, with no chip on his soldier. He’s a skateboard riding Mexicano with a rattail in his hair (it’s the ’80’s).
The hardliners on the No side want to remind everyone of Pinochet’s crimes, the death, the killing, the persecution, the oppression, the disappeared. But Rene’s an ad-man at heart. Grief won’t sell. Sadness won’t sell. Death is anything but sexy.
It’s only once he’s deeper into the campaign, that he experiences, first hand, some of the frightening tactics of the dictator. His son is at risk, and he sees his (ex-)wife beaten at a public demonstration. And he’s especially vulnerable when he discovers his own boss, Lucho (Francisco Castro) at the ad agency, is actually leading the pro-Pinochet’s campaign. It becomes a personal competition not just a political one.
This is a fantastic movie that follows a historically important political event as it happens, but as seen through the eye of the TV commercials and their makers. The film itself is done in period 80’s style, complete with flaring video tape, blurry shots and a rectangular, TV-screen shape.
I saw No at TIFF last year, and found myself at the Chilean film reception. I remember casually asking an official there, part of the Chilean film industry, whether people in Chile prefer to say “Pino-shay”, like Canadians do, or “Pino-tchett”? Actually, she replied, most Chileans prefer to say that man’s name… as little as possible. (Gulp!).
No starts today, and Yossi opens next Friday at the TIFF Bell Lightbox – check your local listings. Also on now is the Toronto Irish Film Festival, and, starting next week, March 21-24 is the first ever water film festival – running documentaries about the crucial issue of H2O!. Go to Ecologos.ca for more details.
This is Daniel Garber at the Movies, each Friday morning on CIUT 89.5 FM and on my website, culturalmining.com .