No-one can accuse Israeli director Eytan Fox of lacking ambition: Walk on Water, like 2002's Jossi & Jagger, attempts to backlight the psychological cost of racial hatred with quirky melodrama and a remarkable use of music. Though the latter strategy is slightly more effective than the former, Fox's unorthodox imagination and willingness to stake his film on unexpected emotional connections brings energy and heart to the story. Indeed, any film that constructs a pivotal scene around the Sea of Galilee and Bruce Springsteen's Tunnel Of Love deserves more than a casual glance.
Though superficially the forced march toward tolerance of Eyal (Late Marriage's Lior Ashkenazi), a racist, homophobic assassin for Israel's Mossad, the film is fundamentally concerned with the generational contamination of ethnic warfare.
Assigned to track down a terminally ill Nazi war criminal by befriending his adult grandchildren, Eyal finds himself unwillingly enmeshed in the siblings' troubled lives. Consciously or otherwise, both Germans are fleeing the past by rejecting their own race: Pia (Caroline Peters) attempts assimilation with Jews by living on a kibbutz and estranging herself from her wealthy parents. Meanwhile, her homosexual brother, Axel (Knut Berger), excludes only other Germans from his active sex life. (Axel's professed ignorance of his grandfather's crimes is both a subtle prod at the whole question of deniability and a comment on the insidiousness of family secrets.)
Working undercover as a tour guide for Axel - who has come to Israel to visit his sister on the kibbutz - Eyal squirms when confronted with their ethnic and sexual differences. His initial disgust with Axel's sympathy for Palestinians is intensified when the sexually adventurous young German picks up a Palestinian waiter at a bar; but the movie is too smart to draw Eyal as a narrow-minded fanatic. Instead, Walk on Water uses his emotional and intellectual journey as a framework for exploring a number of key issues, including German guilt and the way different races define masculinity.
As the character moves from being an affectless killer of Hamas operatives to someone who risks his life to protect a gaggle of German drag queens, the film retains a surprisingly light touch - the violence is never lingered over or fetishised. Throughout, the filmmakers maintain a touching belief in the power of conversation and the meeting of minds.
Dark and saturnine, Ashkenazi is a strong screen presence, a Clive Owen lookalike with natural brooding ability, and he holds things steady when a last-ditch attempt to end on a thrill causes the film to falter. And despite some unfortunate subtitling - a celebratory toast of "L'chaim!" following the successful killing of a Hamas operative is leeched of all irony by the decision to translate it as "Cheers!" instead of the more accurate "To life!" - Walk on Water is pleasantly unpredictable and unafraid to distribute blame wherever it sees fit.
As Eyal and Axel share mud baths and musical preferences (much of the film's emotional weight rests on its marvelous soundtrack), the filmmakers experiment with several different tones, settling only tentatively on one. But their insistence that even the worst of us can change - or simply develop a conscience - is a more than welcome one.