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