The First Lebanon War of 1982 has been the inspiration for two unforgettable recent Israeli films, Ari Folman’s “Waltz with Bashir” and Samuel Moaz’s “Lebanon.” Alas, Eran Riklis’s “Zaytoun,” opening in the US this weekend, doesn’t quite make this a trifecta.
While this hopeful story about individuals from opposite sides finding common ground has a number of touching and interesting moments, it fails to cohere into anything remarkable, or, frankly, believable.
Riklis’s previous work “The Syrian Bride” and “Lemon Tree” dealt exclusively with the intricacies of life at Israel’s borders. “Zaytoun” is similarly interested in a society built on shaky ground.
We open in the notorious Shatila camp in Lebanon. The Palestinian children living there are cursed at by the Lebanese when they leave its confines, and the PLO agitators living there bring retribution from IDF. Put bluntly, it’s no place to grow up, though pre-teen Fahen (Abdellah el-Akal) is doing his best. He takes English lessons, plays soccer and does the occasional rifle exercise with the local PLO militants.
Days after his civilian father is killed (it is unstated whether Israeli or Lebanese Christian fire is to blame), Fahen symbolically shoots at an Israeli plane. The plane, as it happens, is shot down for real and with it comes Yoni (the half-Jewish American actor Stephen Dorff), a new prisoner of war.
Yoni’s guards let Fahen, wearing sunglasses too big for his face, come in to torment him verbally. Harsh words lead to a bullet graze and Yoni ends up at a clinic, from which he escapes.
As he heads for the border, there’s something about his conversations with the kid that sticks with him. Fahen has nothing but a dream to visit Palestine (there’s his grandfather’s very symbolic tree that needs planting) and, frankly, Yoni can use the cover of an Arab to help on the daring escape through hostile territory.
The two make a pact to help each other and it isn’t long until Yoni (whose father died at just around the same age as Fahen’s) is tousling the boy’s hair.
There are tense moments with police, some jokes in a stolen jeep and, naturally, the music-heavy moment when the key Fahen’s grandfather gave him still opens the old cabin on the sun-dappled meadow with nothing but verdant, unblemished nature as far as the eye can see.
Yoni can’t just send Fahen back to Lebanon (he’s seen how other Palestinian boys — good-natured kids — have been shot down by Lebanese partisans) but he isn’t about to adopt him, either. “Oy, what a world!” seems to be the thesis of “Zaytoun.”
Unfortunately, that’s all the movie has to say, and it is content to say it with plenty of cliche. If only every Israeli and Palestinian could have a modestly madcap adventure, this long security crisis could be over.
“Zaytoun,” of course, means “olive,” and I suppose you can’t have an olive branch without one.
Yes, the motivations behind this film are noble. Both characters begin the movie solely as “the other,” but end as individuals. Also, setting the movie 30 years ago is a smart move. It is recent enough to seem like now, but is shrouded in just enough of history’s haze that the specifics of the conflict are not quite as pressing.
Still, it’s doubtful that many who live with the Middle East conflict day to day will do anything but roll their eyes. Yariv Horowitz’s recent 1989-set “Rock the Casbah” ultimately boils down to a similarly dovish message, but does so with far more specificity and bite. Spoken plainly, the olives of “Zaytoun” are bland to the taste.