Israeli director Eytan Fox makes films that open on a rousing patriotic note of rugged Israelis battling the enemy, before gradually exposing the chinks in his country's macho culture.
His widely acclaimed "Yossi & Jagger" began with an elite Israeli unit facing infiltrators from Lebanon on a snowy mountain top and evolved into a clandestine homosexual love affair between the company commander and his sergeant.
His current film, "Walk on Water," lures the viewer by posing as an old-fashioned thriller, in which a hard-as-nails Mossad operative, who specializes in quietly terminating terrorist leaders, is assigned to finish off an aged Nazi war criminal.
By the end of the film, Fox has cast a provocative eye on the awkward relationship between today's Germans and Jews, Israeli attitudes toward Palestinians, the gay scenes in Berlin and Tel Aviv night clubs and the psychology of a professional killer in the service of his country.
At the opening, top Mossad agent Eyal, played by Lior Ashkenazi, one of Israel's most popular actors, is in Istanbul, stalking and quietly eliminating a terrorist leader in front of his wife and young son.
Feted with champagne toasts by his colleagues on his return, Eyal is given an unwelcome new assignment by his boss -- to find and kill Alfred Himmelman, an aged Nazi mass killer of Jews, who has been in hiding since the end of World War II.
When Eyal demurs that the Nazi is old and sick and will die soon anyhow, his boss answers curtly, "I want to get him before God does."
Himmelman's blonde granddaughter, Pia, has rebelled against her background by living and working in a kibbutz, and is visited by her brother, Axel, who wants to persuade her to return to Berlin for their father's birthday party.
Hoping to learn the Nazi's whereabouts, Eyal poses as a tourist guide and he and Axel embark on a trip from the Dead Sea to the Sea of Galilee. Although the young German declares himself an expert on circumcised penises across Europe, it takes Eyal an astonishingly long time to catch on that Axel is gay.
In another scene, a young Palestinian tells Eyal, "You Jews are so obsessed with the past -- if you could just let go...."
The brief exchange reflects Fox's own outlook.
"The Holocaust has been so implanted in our souls that we feel constantly under siege and that the whole world is out to get us," he said in an interview. "We Israeli men feel that we have to be tough all the time, which blinds us to the pain we inflict on others and cripples us emotionally."
Before the film ends -- and we won't give away the ending -- Eyal undergoes a lengthy soul-searching process in which he must re-examine his role in the Mossad and his prejudices against Germans, Palestinians and gays.
As a bonus, scenes of idealized kibbutz life and of swinging Tel Aviv at night should boost tourism to Israel.
Fox is one of a trio of American-born Israeli filmmakers who are sharply questioning Israel's predominant social and political beliefs in critically and commercially successful pictures.
Joseph Cedar is an Orthodox Jew, whose unsparing examination of national religious groups, the backbone of the settlers' movement, keynotes both his earlier "Time of Favor" and the current "Campfire."
Eytan Gorlin, also from a yeshiva background, is the third director, whose "The Holy Land" probed the danger of religious zealotry.
It is to Israel's considerable credit that such self-critical films are not only accepted by the public, but are largely subsidized by government funds. Would that Hollywood and the National Endowment for the Arts, in the powerful and secure United States, showed a similar level of moral courage.
"Walk on Water" opens March 4 at three Laemmle theaters -- Sunset 5 in West Hollywood, Town Center 5 in Encino and Playhouse 7 in Pasadena. For additional information, visit www.laemmle.com.
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