The pressures and privations of military life have rarely been portrayed in as much telling detail as they are in ”Yossi and Jagger,” Eytan Fox’s compact (71-minute), touching portrait of a group of bored Israeli soldiers stationed at a cramped army base on the Israeli-Lebanese border. The area they’re patrolling is a rutted, snow-covered no-man’s-land that appears almost completely lifeless until the moment that enemy firepower explodes out of nowhere.
In the opening scene the soldiers, clutching handkerchiefs to their noses, bury a stinking cache of meat that has rotted since their last visit to the area. When away from the base, they subsist on a combination of beef jerky and chocolate.
Amid this desolation, love has flowered between two young commanders, Yossi (Ohad Knoller) and Jagger (Yehuda Levi), who are carrying on a passionate but discreet affair. Although the other soldiers refer to them as a couple, they view the bond between the men, who are both well liked, as nothing more than a special friendship. When the lovers need time alone, they steal away on a bogus lookout mission and make love in the snow, observed only by rabbits.
The affair is not without its tensions. Yossi, the more macho and closeted, is not entirely comfortable with his sexuality and disapproves of his partner’s fondness for ”diva music” and other nonmanly tastes. The handsomer, more free-spirited and playful Jagger is a shameless coquette who pressures Yossi to consider leaving the army and living with him. Emotionally needy, Jagger petulantly hounds Yossi to put his love into words and deliver the Hollywood romantic fantasy he craves.
When two attractive female soldiers, Goldie (Hani Furstenberg) and Yaeli (Aya Koren), arrive at the base, the suppressed sexual tensions among the soldiers intensify, and you worry that the lovers will be found out and disgraced. For the blond, sexually aggressive Goldie, the visits offer a welcome opportunity for hot, recreational sex. The dark-haired, moony-eyed Yaeli is a romantic who nurtures schoolgirl fantasies of a Champagne-and-roses affair with Jagger, whom she recognizes as special because of his sensitivity.
Even after her forlorn inquiries about Jagger’s tastes in women elicit discouraging responses, Yaeli refuses to give up her dream. One soldier, Ofir (Assi Cohen), pines for her. When she rebuffs him, he focuses his resentment on Jagger.
If the situation has all the ingredients of a shrill, tearful melodrama, the filmmaker, working from a taut screenplay by Avner Bernheimer that doesn’t waste a word or a gesture, keeps the emotional lid firmly in place. And this restraint lends the psychological undercurrents among the characters a resonance they would not otherwise have.
Each of the soldiers, from the playful cook, Yaniv (Erez Kahana), to a tough, war-mongering colonel (Sharon Regniano), who pays a surprise visit, is incisively drawn. And the performances of Mr. Knoller and Mr. Levi (a leading Israeli soap opera star) distill the emotional chemistry of their precarious relationship.
”Yossi and Jagger” may be a gay love story. But the movie, which ends with a wallop, is an unusually subtle and convincing study of group psychology and fluctuating morale among professionals under stress in close quarters.