Walk on Water (2004)

2005-03-04 (Limited release)

Etyan Fox’s Walk on Water is a juggling act of emotional ambiguities and moral lessons. Following enough plot threads to fill three more films, Gal Uchovsky’s screenplay considers alienation in several forms: Jews displaced by Nazism, Israelis and Palestinians displaced by one another, and gays contending with homophobia. While the film follows one man’s individual growth quietly and compellingly, it is less convincing when it reaches for broad social prescriptions.

Eyal (Lior Ashkenazi) is an Israeli intelligence agent who, when asked about the recent Palestinian suicide bombers in his homeland, coldly dismisses them as “animals.” As he suffers from a medical inability to cry tears, Eyal seems primed for blatant symbolism. Instead, he repeatedly moistens his eyes with drops, a more subtle, figurative reminder of his robotic precision.

The first scene alternates between shaky handheld indications of Eyal’s unsteady view and a more stylized, omniscient angle as he assassinates a known terrorist organizer in front of the man’s wife and son. Shortly afterwards, he finds his own wife dead in their bed, a suicide. As he reads a letter she left on her nightstand, the scene fades to black without any further explanation.

One month later, Eyal is back at the shooting range, refusing the help of psychiatrists. He takes on a new assignment, and Menachem (Gideon Shemer), a head of the Mossad intelligence agency, instructs him to track down an escaped Nazi war criminal and “get him before God does.” Reluctantly, Eyal poses as a tour guide for the Nazi’s two grandchildren, Axel (Knut Berger), a gay “peacenik” unaware of his family’s history, and Pia (Caroline Peters), who lives in an Israeli kibbutz, estranged from her family.

In Israel, Walk on Water‘s political intrigues transform into Eyal’s personal redemptive journey. Initially put off by Axel’s naïveté and German heritage, Eyal soon becomes protective, even tender. They bathe each other at the beach, their frank discussion of circumcision invoking a sensuous, mutual curiosity. While Eyal’s initial demeanor is both menacing and darkly humorous, Ashkenazi also reveals glimmers of vulnerability during the course of his character’s development; he smiles faintly and without derision at Axel’s early attempts to “walk on water” when they visit the Sea of Gailee, and becomes possessive when a Palestinian man monopolizes Axel’s affections. As these seemingly isolated events build to an emotional breaking point for Eyal, his response is heartbreaking and redemptive.

Eyal’s encounters with Axel function on personal and historical levels. Sitting by a campfire, they appear in close-ups, warm underlighting suggesting their growing intimacy. As they talk about German national guilt for the Holocaust and the continued Jewish anger, Axel accuses his own generation, who refuse to take responsibility. At the same time, the righteously ferocious Eyal is also uncomfortable at Axel’s bearing blame. Their tentative understanding suggests that old wounds might be repaired through open dialogue.

Eyal’s sympathy for Axel is tested again when he learns he is gay; unable to discuss his repulsion with Axel, he slowly comes round, defending a group of drag queens from a street gang and sharing a frank, funny conversation with Axel about gay sex. The film is less explicit in its exploration of the Israeli- Palestinian conflict, to the point that it’s relegated to background for other tensions. All remain mostly unresolved, an ambiguity only underlined by an unmotivated scene of domestic tranquility.

Walk on Water is a worthy, though frustrating, film. Ashkenazi’s dynamic performance takes Eyal from calculated cynicism to some sort of self-understanding. But in attending to so many topical tensions, the movie ends up not detailing any of them.