- Walk on Water (2004) movie review: Director Eytan Fox and screenwriter Gal Uchovsky’s well-intentioned and generally effective political-psychological drama is hugely helped by the charismatic performance of lead actor Lior Ashkenazi.
Walk on Water movie review: Lior Ashkenazi oozes charisma in skillful but much too eager-to-please ‘gay’ Mossad drama
A more ambitious and more polished effort by Yossi & Jagger director Eytan Fox, the “gay” Mossad drama Walk on Water, screened in the Panorama sidebar at last year’s Berlin Film Festival, is a flawed but engrossing morality tale centered on the dangers of allowing the past to dictate the present, and on the peculiarly human desire for revenge and its disastrous consequences.
As the emotional core of newcomer Gal Uchovsky’s screenplay, Best Actor Ophir (Israeli Film Academy Award) winner Lior Ashkenazi (Late Marriage, 2001) delivers a vigorous and remarkably nuanced performance that helps to mitigate the film’s occasional dramatic lapses.
What does revenge taste like?
Is revenge sweet?
That’s a question that lethal Mossad agent Eyal (Lior Ashkenazi) would be incapable of answering at the beginning of Walk on Water, as the distraught widower – his wife has just committed suicide – and all-around tough guy is handed a new assignment: Find the whereabouts of an old Nazi war criminal by playing the role of tour guide for his grandchildren, Axel (Knut Berger) and the kibbutz-dwelling Pia (Caroline Peters).
A difficult but straightforward find-the-Nazi mission becomes more difficult the moment the bigoted Eyal discovers that Axel is (openly) gay. As the film progresses, the mission becomes even more difficult – and less straightforward – once Eyal starts seeing Axel and Pia as sentient human beings, as opposed to walking, talking means to a political end.
Commercial concerns detract from ‘good intentions’
As can be attested by its plot line, Walk on Water is filled with good intentions. And in all fairness, there’s nothing wrong with them per se.
We’re shown that violence begets violence, even if of the internalized kind. Axel and Pia remind us that Germany, notwithstanding the post-unification resurgence of ultra-nationalist movements, is not the same country whose policies led to World War II and the Holocaust. In fact, had he been around in the 1930s Axel himself might have ended his days in a concentration camp.
Eyal, for his part, embodies the hope that redemption is possible for (at least some of ) the most hardened people out there.
Yet good intentions become a problem when they no longer serve the story or its characters. Case in point: Following an ambiguous take on the fine line separating revenge from justice, Walk on Water’s crowd-pleasing, can-we-all-get-along finale feels as tone-deaf as it is phony.
Will they or won’t they?
Although not as well intentioned as the movie’s conclusion, also problematic are other types of commercial considerations.
For instance, an excessive number of pop tunes, from Buffalo Springfield’s “For What It’s Worth” to Bruce Springsteen’s “Tunnel of Love,” detracts from rather than enhances the drama. All the more troublesome is the (gay) audience-pandering choice in the portrayal of the relationship between Eyal and Axel.
The “well-intentioned” depiction of Eyal’s evolution as a person, no matter how conventional as a dramatic device (especially in a road movie), is what’s called “character arc.” Predictable, but, within the film’s framework, both believable and compelling.
On the other hand, the titillating side of the Eyal-Axel scenes is a superfluous distraction. As the two men get to know each other during their road trip, we’re supposed to wonder whether something more intimate than a chaste handshake will take place between them. They shower together. They give each other intense looks. They bond during a Dead Sea mud bath.
And for what?
Mossad agent saves drag queens
Just as unwelcome are the gay man vs. straight man clichés that plague Axel’s observations. A particularly drab example: “You straight men … The only thing you want to know is who does the schnooky-schnooky.”
And then there’s the curious choice of having Eyal’s identity revealed by having the by now ex-bigot be transmogrified into a gallant hero along the lines of Errol Flynn and Tyrone Power back in the day, saving the gay German and his drag queen friends (in the Olivia de Havilland/Linda Darnell roles) from a bunch of Berlin skinheads.
It’s in such instances that Lior Ashkenazi proves to be not only the savior of German gays and drag queens in distress but, to a significant extent, of Walk on Water itself.
Whether playing the role of a tour guide for Germans in Israel or of an Israeli tourist in Germany, Eyal displays a dizzying cornucopia of contradictory human emotions and attitudes: He’s strong and sensitive, self-assured and insecure, unforgiving and compassionate, fearless and terrified, righteous and guilt-ridden.
However frighteningly, Lior Ashkenazi’s tormented Mossad killer – like Alan Ladd’s cold-blooded hitman in the 1942 noir This Gun for Hire – comes across as an individual worthy of empathy. An impressive thespian feat.
Is revenge sweet?
So, is revenge sweet?
Not according to Walk on Water.
In spite of the unnecessary distractions along the way, Eytan Fox and Gal Uchovsky want us to understand that revenge is not only bitter but also profoundly destructive for all involved.
Now, as for “justice”…
Walk on Water (2004)
Director: Eytan Fox.
Screenplay: Gal Uchovsky.
Cast: Lior Ashkenazi. Knut Berger. Caroline Peters. Gideon Shemer. Carola Regnier. Hanns Zischler. Yousef ‘Joe’ Sweid. Ernest Lenart.
“Walk on Water Movie (2004) Review” notes
Top-grossing Israeli film production in the U.S.
“Walk on Water Movie” endnotes
Israeli Academy Award & Prix César nominations
Walk on Water was nominated for eight Israeli Film Academy Awards (Ophir Awards), including Best Picture, Director, Actor (Lior Ashkenazi), and Screenplay.
In addition, Eytan Fox’s psychological drama was a Best Foreign Film Prix César nominee.
Knut Berger and Lior Ashkenazi Walk on Water movie images: Roadside Attractions.
“Walk on Water: First-Rate Ashkenazi in ‘Gay’ Mossad Drama” last updated in September 2021.