It has been 10 years since Jagger died, and Yossi (Ohad Knoller), his erstwhile commander and lover, hasn’t recovered yet. Now a cardiologist working in Tel Aviv, Yossi is still closeted, living in an emotional straitjacket woven of loneliness, mourning and the fear of being devastated by more tragedy. If only something would change…
That is the situation at the opening of Eytan Fox’s “Yossi,” his sequel to the 2002 hit “Yossi and Jagger,” the film that put Fox on the map of international cinema, and which marks his return to the Tribeca Film Festival this month. Knoller is also back, reprising the role that won him the festival’s best-actor award in 2003. But this time he is in a very different film, as befits his character’s significantly changed situation.
“Yossi and Jagger” shook to the rhythms of rock and roll and the madness of the boredom/terror dialectic of modern warfare. Confined to a mixture of army barracks and claustrophobic bivouac, the film was visually jittery to great effect and emotionally congested — inchoate with a teeming mixture of hormones and potential violence.
By contrast, “Yossi” is a surprisingly and rewardingly understated film, the kind of film in which much of the emotional stress is conveyed through our view of the back of the protagonist’s head, the stolid glumness of his face and the extraordinary effort required to coax a smile from him. Where the Yossi of a decade ago was stoic, the Yossi of today is downright somber. It is no small credit to Fox and Knoller that he is never dull.
“Yossi” communicates its protagonist’s emotional states through the subtlest of means. The event he has both feared and yearned for — a shock that will jar him out of his rut — takes place when he walks into the hospital and sees Jagger’s mother Varda (Orly Silberschatz in the role taken by Yael Pearl in the first film). Fox notes this abrupt shift with only a small directorial touch. The scene opens with a tracking shot of Yossi’s head in close-up from the back as he moves past the nurses’ station. Fox cuts to a shot of Varda from Yossi’s point of view, then cuts to the reverse angle close-up of Yossi as he walks towards her. His face registers only the tiniest shift to indicate he recognizes her, but Fox has switched from the gliding tracking of the first shot to a hand-held shot for the latter; the change is almost imperceptible, but very real, and enormously powerful for it subtle contrast between somnolent routine and just the faintest shaky uncertainty.
This kind of economy of means goes to the heart of the film. Fox knows that this Yossi is different from the Yossi of 10 years ago. He’s been wounded where the scars don’t show, he’s older, more contemplative, sadder. Contrasted with the vividly assertive men around him, including fellow doctor Moti (Lior Ashkenazi in full-testosterone flood) and Tom (Oz Zehavi), a young, openly gay soldier he meets on the road to Eilat, Yossi is undemonstrative, even emotionally blocked. The beauty of the film “Yossi” is the gradual, nuanced way that the man Yossi changes over a few weeks. By the film’s ending, he is as different from the guy we saw 90 minutes earlier as he is from the one we saw 10 years ago.
The protagonists of “El Gusto: The Casbah Blues” a first feature documentary by Safinez Bousbia, are old enough to be Yossi’s grandfathers, and they’ve packed a lot of lively experience into their 70, 80 and 90 years. They are the great musicians of colonial Algeria, the masters of Chaabi, the popular music that ruled that North African country for decades. As Bousbia says in her narration of the film, they are “Jews and Muslims torn apart by history 50 years ago, and brought back together by Chaabi music.”
Chaabi was the music of the poor and disenfranchised, the music that was born in the 1940s in the Casbah, the slums of Algiers, populated by poor Muslims, Jews and Christians, outcasts in their own country. Like fado in Portugal and rembetiko in Greece, it was a music of café life, of the lumpenproletariat. And like those great popular forms, it gave voice to the voiceless in a way that guaranteed it would find an audience, if it were heard.
El Hadj Mohammed El Anka virtually fathered Chaabi single-handedly, bringing together, as one of his former students explains, “Berber music, religious chants from Islam and Judaism and Andalusian music,” into a propulsively danceable and melodramatic form.
The men profiled in this lively film were mostly students of El Anka, the first musicians of their class and genre to emerge from the previously exclusive Conservatoire de Musique in Algiers. When independence came to Algiers in 1962, the revolutionary government wasn’t interested in promoting a culture that was a reminder of the sorrows of colonialism, and they were unsympathetic to the Jews who remained in Algeria — perhaps they too were reminders of the country’s bitter past. The musicians of “El Gusto” were separated by politics. “The Jews were not considered colonizers,” one says, “but with independence they ejected us.”
The ties between the musicians were stronger than the politics that separated them. As both Jewish and Arabic players recall, they had more in common in lifestyle, language and class than they had with people outside the Casbah. As one of them says, “When they kicked all of us out of Spain [in the medieval period, culminating in the expulsion of the Jews in 1492], we had the same luggage, the same memories and – Jews and Arabs both – the same music.”
With the world vastly changed in a half-century, Bousbia set about reuniting the surviving musicians as a Chaabi orchestra for a series of concerts. Although most of the film is centered on their histories, there is plenty of great music and a final note of triumph, as what was supposed to be a once-in-a-lifetime “pick-up band” turned into a top-notch touring group with a hit record under its belt. The music is thrilling (gotta get that soundtrack album!) and the film is an unalloyed delight. The comparison to Wim Wenders’s masterpiece “The Buena Vista Social Club” is inevitable, but “El Gusto” more than earns it.
The 11th annual Tribeca Film Festival continues through April 29 at numerous venues around the city. For comprehensive information, go to www.tribecafilm.com/festival.