ZAYTOUN
Hebrew title: Le’hishaer be’chaim.
Directed by Eran Riklis.
Written by Frederick A. Ritzenberg and Nader Rizq.
With Stephen Dorff, Abdallah El Akai, Ali Suliman, Ashraf Barhom
Running time: 110 minutes
In English, Arabic and Hebrew.
Check with theaters for subtitle information.

Eran Riklis’s Zaytoun is a feel-good road movie about an Israeli soldier and a Palestinian refugee bonding as they try to flee Lebanon in 1982. It’s an oddly uneven film, with excellent acting and stunning visuals, but it’s marred by a formulaic plot and a script that too often telegraphs just where the action is headed.

Riklis, who made The Human Resources Manager (2010), is an accomplished director who works well with actors. His best known film, The Syrian Bride (2004), was a moving and complex look at a Druse family in the Galilee, which shattered stereotypes and brought its characters to life. It also introduced many to the wonderful actress Hiam Abbass, who teamed up with Riklis again in 2008 for Lemon Tree , about a Palestinian widow.

But Zaytoun harkens back to Riklis’s 1992 Cup Final and has a stunningly similar plot. In Cup Final , Moshe Ivgy starred as an Israeli soldier in Lebanon captured by a group of Palestinians (led by Muhammad Bakri), who bonded over their shared love of soccer as they traveled across the country. While that film – like Zaytoun – had wonderful actors, there was a bedrock lack of emotional reality that also infuses this film.

Zaytoun’s strongest scenes are the early ones, that show Fahed (Abdallah El Akai), a Palestinian boy who lives in the Shatila refugee camp in Lebanon in 1982, going about his daily routine. His classroom is filled with framed photos of children who have died in the fighting, and the camp is dingy, a collection of concrete slabs. But Fahed is a regular kid – although he’s lost his mother – who ventures out of the camp to sell cigarettes and gum to UN personnel. The kids try, as best as they can, to avoid getting into trouble with the rival militias that control Beirut, but it’s not easy. Fahed’s father and grandfather, with whom he lives, just want him to stay out of trouble, but when the kids are commandeered by a group of militant Palestinians for military training, he seems to enjoy it. There’s a vitality to this opening section, and it’s rare that a Palestinian kid is shown on film as a normal child, not a martyr or a victim.

But not long after this, Fahed’s father is killed in an Israeli air strike, and then Yoni (Stephen Dorff), an Israeli pilot, is shot down over Beirut. This is where the movie begins to go wrong. Maybe we’re meant to suspend disbelief at the implausibility of some of what follows and enjoy the peace message, that an Israeli and a Palestinian can become friends, even in trying circumstances. But you may find yourself asking: Would PLO militants really leave a bunch of kids in charge of guarding an Israeli prisoner, even letting them have the keys? Would Fahed be so quick to bond with the Israeli, even after the Israeli grabs one of his friends and threatens to strangle him if the other kids do not free him? This was exactly the trouble I had with Cup Final , in which the Palestinians shoot and kill the Israeli prisoner’s best friend, but then the Israeli has no problem trusting them a day or two later. Fahed insists on coming with Yoni as he tries to flee across the border after his escape because Fahed dreams of visiting the village in Israel from which his father’s family fled. Dragging a highly symbolic olive branch that his father repotted shortly before he was killed, and a key to the family’s ancestral home, Fahed tags along with the soldier. The comic high point of the film comes as a Beirut cab driver taking them south sings along to “Stayin’ Alive” on the radio. But most of the bonding after that doesn’t feel real.  In perhaps the most implausible scene, Yoni runs across a minefield so that Fahed’s olive plant won’t be left behind.

The performances, by a host of veteran Israeli Arab character actors, including Ali Suliman and Ashraf Barhom, are all good, but Dorff (who recently starred in Sofia Coppola’s Somewhere ) and El Akai are the standouts. While the bonding between the two may be fun to watch, both it and the film aren’t terribly convincing.



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