After knockabout comic hits “Jalla! Jalla!” and “Kops,” Lebanese-Swedish helmer Josef Fares takes a serious turn with affecting drama “Zozo,” Sweden’s 2005 submission to the Academy Awards for foreign-language film. Consisting of two halves that don’t entirely harmonize, 1987-set feature focuses on the orphaned, eponymous Lebanese lad who makes his way from Beirut to Sweden alone and then suffers culture shock. One of those awkward pics about, but not necessarily for kids, sadness-freighted “Zozo” is unlikely to match boffo local figures of Fares’ previous fare, but offshore interest could be piqued if it makes the Oscar shortlist.
The Lebanese civil war is in full swing, but young Zozo (Imad Creidi), a boy of about 10, and his family try to carry on as normally as possible. Zozo’s grandfather (Elias Gergi) and grandmother (Yasmine Awad) have already emigrated to Sweden, where the rest of the family plans to move as soon as their passports and airplane tickets arrive.
On the day the documents are delivered, Zozo’s mother Ward (Carmen Lebbos) sends him on an errand. As soon as he leaves his apartment building, it’s shelled, killing both his parents. After Zozo’s elder brother Dav (Jad Stephan) disappears to join the fighting, Zozo’s only choice is to take his passport and ticket and try to get to the airport on foot. His only companion are his pet baby chicken, which Zozo imagines can talk to him with a gruff, adult’s voice, and a girl of his own age, Rita (Antoinette Turk), met along the way, who helps, and wants to run away with him to escape a violent father.
With its powerful tragic wallop and dreamlike journey through the war zone, the Lebanese-set section of the film feels rich enough to have sustained a feature on its own.
Unfortunately, the section set in Sweden, once Zozo gets there, feels thinner dramatically, and a bit of a rehash of a recent run of Swedish culture-clash movies that helmer Fares contributed to with the bawdy “Jalla! Jalla!” Still, the storyline here may be more personal — the helmer himself moved to Sweden at age 10 — although it’s not as slushy or sentimental as it might have been. Focused and impressively varied perf by young lead Creidi also helps to keep the cute-quotient down.
On the whole, Fares mobile, kinetic directorial style fits the material well. Action scenes in Beirut, some shot on location, have potent visceral impact, although the decision to use desaturated stock with frames dropped out in the style of “Saving Private Ryan,” is now something of a war-movie visual cliche. Period feel is evoked subtly through costumes and production design. Dragged out feeling of the second half may be more the fault of the script than editing by Michael Leszczylowski (Lukas Moodysson’s regular collaborator) and Kristin Grundstrom.