Film Review: Zaytoun

Middle East conflict becomes a feel-good buddy movie.

A proud Palestinian refugee and an Israeli air force pilot form an unlikely bond in this unusual buddy movie, which begins in the war-torn streets of Beirut in 1982. With this feel-good paean to multicultural friendship, Eran Riklis, the Israeli-born director of The Syrian Bride and Lemon Tree, is holding out another olive branch to Israel’s Arab enemies—literally, since “zaytoun” is the Arabic word for olive, and also the name of a Palestinian charity organization.

This polished U.K.-Israeli co-production is history as wish fulfillment: politically sanitized and tastefully shot, even the harrowing scenes of summary executions and snipers shooting children in the street. The film’s facile message of cross-cultural unity owes more to fairytale than reality, but the action is slick and the story gripping. Appealing to audiences with an interest in Middle Eastern history, but also simple and universal enough to serve as a straight wartime thriller, box-office potential looks fairly healthy.

The 14-year-old Abdallah El Akal gives a compelling star performance as Fahed, a Palestinian street vendor living in a refugee ghetto in Beirut. Enjoying a credibility upswing following his role in Sofia Coppola's Somewhere, Stephen Dorff proves persuasively flinty, despite a wobbly accent, as Israeli jet pilot Yoni, shot down over the city and held captive by PLO militants. Fahed and his friends are left to guard this valuable prisoner, exchanging bitter insults and occasional bursts of violence. But Yoni gradually comes to view Fahed as a means of possible escape, tempting the newly orphaned teenager with the promise of a pilgrimage to his family’s former home village inside Israel.

Agreeing to a grudging pact of mutual cooperation, Fahed and Yoni flee Beirut and spend a fraught few days rushing to the border, dodging armed Palestinian guerrillas, Lebanese police, border guards and snipers along the way. Here Riklis proves his mettle as a competent action director, shooting a series of near-misses and car chases against a gorgeous backdrop of sun-baked hills and rugged coastline. A farcical encounter with a disco-loving taxi driver also provides a welcome note of absurd comedy.

Full of two-dimensional caricatures and nail-biting close shaves, Zaytoun functions best as an action-heavy road movie. In its calmer latter stages, the film’s innate sentimentality begins to grate as Fahed and Yoni form a father-son bond that magically washes away all cultural differences and historical grievances. The implied message, that murderous political conflicts like that between Israel and Palestine can be solved by individual friendship, is risibly simplistic.

All the same, Riklis has made a warm-hearted and well-intentioned movie that will appeal to audiences of all ages, particularly those with no direct investment in either side of this ongoing conflict. The director also drops a few darkly ironic hints for anyone familiar with Middle Eastern history. The notorious Sabra and Shatila massacre of Palestinian refugees in Beirut, as memorialized in Ari Folman’s Waltz with Bashir, occurred soon after the events depicted here and are subtly foreshadowed in the final scene. Films can be sweet fairytales, Riklis seems to acknowledge, but real life leaves a much more bitter taste.
The Hollywood Reporter