Walk on Water sinks a bit

The ambitious quasi-thriller “Walk on Water” has nothing to do with leaps of faith, the title notwithstanding. Its focus is misplaced faith, and the cost of living with blinders on.

The central character, Eyal, is a Mossad assassin who specializes in taking out Hamas operatives and embraces the righteousness of military solutions. Suspicion and anger are the only feelings he seems comfortable expressing, which his wife finds insufficient.

He embodies a certain Israeli attitude and inflexibility which the filmmakers clearly see as anachronistic. The plot they set in motion to shake Eyal of his intolerance has the unmistakable air of contrivance, but a slew of offbeat moments give the film a large measure of idiosyncratic pleasure.

“Walk on Water,” which opens Friday, March 4, is not a completely satisfying movie but it is a fascinating one.

In the wake of his latest successful mission and some bad news at home, Eyal (heartthrob Lior Ashkenazi of “Late Marriage”) is given the innocuous assignment of playing an undercover tour guide for Axel, an easygoing German schoolteacher (Knut Berger), en route to Israel to visit his kibbutznik sister, Pia (Carolina Peters).

Axel’s grandfather is a former Nazi scoundrel who’s been in hiding in South America for decades. Eyal’s boss dispatches our hero to ferret out the old man’s whereabouts.

At this point, “Walk on Water,” an Israeli-German production that opened the Panorama section of the 2004 Berlin Film Festival, turns into a quirky travelogue. Eyal takes Axel to the Sea of Galilee, the Western Wall, the Dead Sea (where you can almost walk on water) and Tel Aviv.

In one of the film’s numerous ironies, Eyal learns next to nothing about Grandpa Himmelman (who died years ago, or so Axel’s father told his son) but more than he wants to know about Axel (he’s gay) and Pia (she wants Eyal).

None of this amuses the uptight agent who, the more we come to know the open-minded Germans, seems less a straight arrow than a racist creep. When Eyal publicly insults a new Palestinian acquaintance of Axel’s in a disturbing scene in the Old City, we can feel our sympathy shift.

Eytan Fox, the openly gay Israeli director — coming off the international hit “Yossi and Jagger,” his terrific earlier work, “Song of the Siren” and the TV series “Florentene,” screened locally in the Jewish Film Festival — came up with the story. His longtime partner Gal Uchovsky wrote the screenplay.

All of their films feature a pop music soundtrack, and here they use several tunes by Israeli vocalist Esther Ofarim to balance the overriding male dynamic.

The music occasionally feels shoehorned in, however, just as a few of the plot turns are less than graceful. But the major impediment to warming up to the film is Ashkenazi’s chilly, detached performance.

The actor blends rugged good looks and pathological insensitivity like an exotic Clive Owen (“Closer”). But Ashkenazi fails to convey the pain and despair of a man who’s emotionally closed and less than curious intellectually, opting instead to play Eyal as a sleepwalker slowly awakening.

That’s unfortunate, for the film itself is an empathetic view of a man whose identity is built on past battles and an us-or-them philosophy. If Ashkenazi had expressed Eyal’s fear of shedding embedded prejudices for a new world view, the agent’s struggle in the last reels would touch us — and so would this film.

“Walk On Water” opens Friday, March 4, at the Embarcadero Center Cinemas in San Francisco, Shattuck Cinemas in Berkeley and the Camera 7 in San Jose.