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'Water': A Killer's Crisis of Conscience

By Stephen Hunter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 1, 2005; Page C05

"Walk on Water," an ingeniously crafted Israeli drama, cuts in so many different directions it could be a jigsaw convention. Every single relationship is fraught with paradox, ambiguity, regret and double-entendre, yet the thing is so smoothly made and well-acted it draws you in.

The movie begins, thrillerlike, with a Mossad assassin named Eyal (long-faced Lior Ashkenazi) taking out a terrorist suspect (method: quick, lethal injection) in public in Turkey. But when he gets home he discovers his wife has committed suicide, and this tragedy immediately gets him placed on nonoperational status, which upsets him far more than his wife's death. Eyal, we understand, is a pro's pro, a zealot's zealot, one of those universal soldiers who do the world's wet work: controlled, distant, goal- and duty-haunted, he's the guy who'll do dirty deeds dirt cheap.

A cold Mossad assassin, played by Lior Ashkenazi, left, is thrown into an emotional tailspin when his wife commits suicide in "Walk on Water." (Roadside Attractions/samuel Goldwyn Films)

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But now, without a mission, he's unhappy and even more so when taken up by another Mossad department and given a somewhat quixotic assignment. The youthful German brother of a woman living on a kibbutz is coming to visit her in Tel Aviv. It turns out that they are the grandchildren of one of the few remaining uncaught war criminals; Eyal is assigned -- he hates the job -- to represent himself as a tour guide, insinuate himself among the siblings and hunt for leads to the old SS officer. What he can't count on is: He falls in love with the sister, and the brother falls in love with him. Then it turns out the old bastard is alive and Eyal, by now hopelessly involved with these two messy people, is given the job of terminating him.

Basically, the movie chronicles a zealot's softening amid a nexus of issues. There's the gay-straight issue, the national-international issue, the peace-war issue, the man-woman issue, the kill-or-be-killed issue, each one of them embodied not in a speech but in a relationship. The director, Eytan Fox, has a brilliant gift for putting people in moral quandaries where their responsibilities run counter to their instincts. Then he sits back and watches them twitch. The zealous Eyal, for example, is a man of black-and-white: He has no mercy for his antagonists in the arena of anti-terrorism, which has extended to all Palestinians. No sentimental liberalism here: Fox shows him as a natural, fierce hater who cannot bring himself to be decent to the young Palestinian that the German boy Axel (Knut Berger) takes as his lover. And this, of course, is after the nuance-deaf warrior has finally figured out the boy is gay. (Note to Eyal: Do you think the gay bars are a tip?)

But as contemptuous as he pretends to be of the two German hippies and their guilt-driven family secrets, he's been weirdly absorbed by them. The man who cannot cry -- a tear-duct condition, used as a symbol of his emotional detachment -- suddenly feels strange wet beads falling from his eyes, and his whole purpose comes into question when he's ordered to kill again. He knows if he succeeds, he'll get his old life back -- but does he want it?

"Walk on Water" is so smooth it's almost Canadian, and that's high praise for any film. But again it denotes a minor movie miracle: how with intelligence, imagination and craft a small film can work in really large ways.

Walk on Water (106 minutes, in Hebrew and German with subtitles, at Landmark's E Street) is not rated and contains nudity and violence.

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