Opens Fri., Oct. 25 at Varsity. Not rated. 110 minutes.
As deathbed promises go, this one will be tricky: A Palestinian orphan named Fahed (Abdallah El Akal) must return a spindly olive-tree sapling to his now-Israeli-occupied hometown to honor the wishes of his late parents. But it’s 1982, and the roughly 12-year-old Fahed is currently residing in a refugee camp in Beirut. How this kid will get out of Lebanon and into Israel during a war is not something he’s thought through.
Yet the liberal-minded nature of Zaytoun is such that not only will Fahed find a way, but his passage will also involve Israeli pilot Yoni (Stephen Dorff, late of Sofia Coppola’s Somewhere), who just parachuted into Palestinian hands after bailing out of his damaged plane. If the prospect of these two characters teaming up and hitting the road sounds like a preordained excuse for well-meaning social commentary, well, it is. This is unabashedly the territory of Stanley Kramer’s The Defiant Ones, built on the premise that if warring individuals could only spend time with each other, they might reach some sort of tentative understanding. If such a concept invariably seems simplistic, it nevertheless offers opportunities for drama—especially when the action takes place behind one or the other’s enemy lines.
On the dramatic score, Israeli director Eran Riklis earns a mixed grade. An admirably bold filmmaker, he previously explored issues of occupation and displacement in his acclaimed The Syrian Bride and Lemon Tree. He seemed to go in a more conventional direction with The Human Resources Manager (2010), another road movie, and Zaytoun continues this trend. It’s charming in ways that undercut its setting and purpose, even if a couple of unexpected shootings—one lethal, one not—remind us of the cruelty of this particular war zone. A competent, professionally made movie that falls short is not necessarily a bad thing, but when the political stakes are this high, it feels more troubling when a film settles for half-baked effects. Almost everything about Zaytoun is thoughtful and nice, and that is not enough.