Eytan Fox’s 2004 film, “Walk on Water,” (which opened in U.S. theaters this month) is likely considered by its creator a well intentioned effort at enlightenment through provocation, which is no doubt why, despite its obvious and glaring deficiencies as a film, it has managed to garner a great deal of attention and acclaim both in Israel and overseas.
It is important to mention early on that “Walk on Water” is, in fact, not a particularly good film. Unimaginatively shot, depressingly didactic, infuriatingly unsubtle, and mostly dull, its ludicrously contrived plot has all the depth and resonance of a child’s morality play.
Ultimately, it is a parable of sorts, as such, it is against hate and violence. In this it is inoffensive. Its moral fiber, on the other hand, is more problematic, and well in keeping with current artistic trends that tend toward a universalism so all-encompassing that they ultimately collapse into a nihilism of their own, and that coagulate into an ideology of hate in the name of love.
'Walk on Water': moral infantilism
This dialectic does not necessarily equate with bad cinema. In more talented hands, it can create an existential tension that is immensely appealing. Amos Gitai, for instance, in his vicious assault against religion in “Kadosh,” creates a great film that criticizes intolerance by means of being manifestly intolerant toward a culture that fails to meet Gitai’s exacting standards. Yet the film remains transfixing in spite of, or perhaps because of, the irreconcilable paradox at its center.
This is the key to why “Walk on Water” fails: its moral infantilism. Gitai is willing to wade into these dark waters, but Fox, whether out of intrinsic shallowness or ideological fervor, demands the right to hover above it all in the divine manner indicated by his film’s title, a title which, and this is no coincidence, invokes Jesus, and thus a Christian mythos.
The film’s characters, such as they are, are little more than cardboard allegories for their collective identities. As such, they propose a series of dichotomies: between Jew and German, Jew and Arab, heterosexual and homosexual. In all cases, the former is portrayed as morally inferior to the latter, and compounded in their guilt by their false sense of moral superiority.
This is, of course, a provocation, and not a subtle one. The heterosexual Jew (played by the woefully miscast Lior Ashkenazi) is violent, selfish, emotionally dead, obsessed with the sins of the past and unable to recognize his own sins of the present.
Deference to Christian mythos
His one saving grace is his total incapacity for self-reflection, which presents the opportunity for redemption (again, we see the deference to Christian mythos: the judgmental and savage Jew who can yet be redeemed by universal love). The homosexual German is loving, delicate to the point of effeminacy, compassionate, morally aware, and impossibly insightful despite his naivete.
The only Arab character is also homosexual (and his ease and comfort with his sexuality is, to put it mildly, less than credible, if one is to consider the position of homosexuals in Arab culture, and not Fox’s fantasy of it) and amounts to little more than a papier mache saint who in a 12-hour time span brings to expression the moral purity of his German lover and the corruption of his Jewish oppressor.
Fox’s furious underlining of his point is unnecessary, since by the time the film is over we would have gotten it anyways, and the issue at hand is fairly clear even before then. At its core, the film is a ferocious criticism and indictment of contemporary Israeli and Jewish identity.
This identity, as Fox portrays it, is both obsessed with and corrupted by the past, and is thus incapable of empathy or even elementary human emotion (the hero cannot even cry as a result of an eye disorder which Fox has conveniently invented).