A Middle Eastern road movie/buddy picture built around the oddest of couples — an Israeli pilot, and a 12-year old Palestinian — Eran Riklis’ “Zaytoun” is an accessible, briskly paced and occasionally schematic adventure that could find its way into the hearts of unlikely auds via a kid-centric story and a solid perf by Stephen Dorff. It also has an all-but-unspoken subplot that haunts the entire production, and elevates its story above and beyond the mere romantic-political thriller many viewers will presume it to be.
The tale is set in 1982 Beirut, in a Lebanon riven by civil war and overrun with Palestinian refugees who can’t even enter the city limits without running a line of snipers. Entrepreneurial boys like Fahed (Abdallah El Akal) try to eke out a living selling gum and cigarettes, until they’re driven back to their slum-like camp. Though it arrives early in the film, the visual transition from city to camp is one of the more striking moments provided by Riklis and d.p. Dan Lausten, the camera traveling from a relatively sunny urban center to an almost haunting-looking avenue, which in turn leads to another place, and another life.
There, young Fahed lives with his widowed father, who spends his time cultivating an olive tree he hopes one day to replant in the village where he was born. Fahed regularly skips school, or gets thrown out for smoking in class, and he and his friends are also forced into training led by some rather hapless-seeming PLO coaches. It’s not a place that generates a lot of optimism, or excitement, so it’s a big day when an Israeli jet goes down nearby, and the Israeli pilot is captured.
The orphaned Fahed’s reaction to Yoni (Dorff) is predictably hostile, but his desire to return to his parents’ village is so strong that he frees the pilot, who has promised to take Fahed home. That the two will eventually reach a rapprochement, and even friendship, never seems in doubt. The only mystery is how many contrived calamities, close calls and hair-raising escapes will have to ensue before they both reach their intended destinations.
There are some beautiful moments in “Zaytoun,” thanks to the Israeli locales, and a willingness to be poetic; Fahed, standing on the ruins of his parents house, arms outstretched in the breeze, makes for an exquisite shot, and generates a sense of exhilaration and hope.
Given how much “Zaytoun” follows the playbook, the pic’s portentous ending is extraordinarily subtle, and will resonate best with those who know the history of the region, circa 1982. For such viewers, the finish is highly disturbing and effective.
Production values are mixed. Yoni and Fahed often escape danger via the miracle of editing. Some scenes are overlit and artificial in appearance; others are quite striking.