You can't fault director Eytan Fox for lacking ambition. In Walk on Water (the follow-up to his queer military love story, Yossi and Jagger), the director addresses the many blunt faces of machismo, the lingering aftereffects of the Holocaust, the beauty of kibbutz life and the thrill of German gay club culture all in an offhand way that elegantly shifts modes between tragedy, thriller and light farce. Fox, an American-born Israeli, doesn't pull all of this together seamlessly it's probably impossible to do so and some of his themes could use a bit more exploring than feature length possibly allows. Yet it's exhilarating just to witness a wide worldview unspool with such dedicated humanity.
The movie opens in Istanbul, with a Mossad assassin named Eyal (Lior Ashkenazi, all smoky eyes and heavy brow) coolly terminating a man in full view of his family. By merely following orders (the irony is fully intended), Eyal avoids having to deal with a personal tragedy that's turned him into a near-automaton. But his numb denial dissolves when he's given a new assignment: to act as a tour guide for German neo-hippie Axel (Knut Berger), who's visiting his kibbutz settler sis, Pia (Carolina Peters). The reason for the charade is to put Eyal on the trail of the siblings' grandfather, a former Nazi and near-vegetative relic leaving his American exile for one last visit with his family. The meaninglessness of this assignment will cause Eyal to question the wisdom of his superiors, while his relationship with the German youths will shatter every assumption he's had about just about everything.
Eyal's fall to grace begins in the film's most hilarious sustained sequence. The taciturn Israeli takes Axel to a Dead Sea beach, where Eyal ostentatiously strips for a swim. Afterward, the two naked men rub some anti-burn goop on each other's bodies. Axel notes that Eyal is circumcised, then goes into a nostalgic personal reverie about the penis shapes of Europe. At this point, it dawns on the adorably slow Eyal that Axel is as queer as a two-dollar bill.
Worse, Eyal really likes him, which forces the assassin to confront the traditional Mossad culture of machismo and, later, his hatred of Arabs, via a confrontation with Axel's sweet Palestinian boyfriend. Even worse, Eyal is falling for Pia, but is stuck having to jet off to Berlin to kill the grandfather she's never met (and whose Nazi past is unknown to her).
Fox uses simple but effective cinema syntax to create an unobtrusive multi-POV style. Axel and Pia's moments alone have a warm-toned, near-fuzzy look; when Eyal comes to Berlin, the color scheme turns chilly, the buildings looming ominous and effectively echoing Eyal's fear that he may be entering the heart of darkness.
Fox's music sense is superlative; many scenes would barely make sense without his savvy soundtrack choices. The butch Eyal claims that Bruce Springsteen's is the "only real music," but what he keeps playing isn't the swagger of the E Street Band, but the near-pitiful ache of Tunnel of Love-period Boss. The delirious pleasures of house music almost pummel Eyal into a more open outlook, while the quirks of gender identification are playfully skewered by the Yiddish folk music he denounces as representative of a too-fey Jewishness. The gay Axel, meanwhile, finds the music irresistible.
Balancing out the small epiphanies, terror attacks are scored to the widower moan-song of Esther Ofarim, while Fox's rapid-cut glimpses of chaos and bloodshed in post-bombing Israeli streets are somehow made even more sinister by a detached, trip-hoppy Sergio Mendes remix.
Fox does superlative work on the personal level, but stumbles a bit when it comes to the overtly political. Whether accurate or not, his all-dark view of Israeli-style intel comes off as too coarse a gesture. And it could be argued that Eyal's conversion to humanism (and Axel's solution to his family's Nazi problem) has a slight whiff of deus ex machina. In a larger sense, Walk on Water is possibly too hopeful in its basic assumption that inside everyone is a mensch struggling to get out. Then again, perhaps more films should have such problems.