Friday, September 20, 2013

Zaytoun: Olive Branches Come from Olive Trees

A captured Israeli air force pilot and a Beirut street urchin have one thing in common.  They would both much rather be in Israel.  They just have different names for it.  Yes, the presumed enemies will form a significant alliance in Eran Riklis’s Zaytoun (trailer here), which opens today in New York.

In 1982, the PLO capitalized on the civil war raging across Lebanon, using the nearly failed state as a staging ground to launch rocket attacks into Israel.  Much to world’s shock and dismay, Israel decided to defend herself.  Unfortunately, one pilot will be coming home the hard way.  Shot down and captured, Yoni will be beaten and tortured before the PLO trades him for a bulk quantity of their terrorists imprisoned in Israel.  Young Fahed is one of his most rabid tormentors.  A cigarette hawker and occasional pupil of the PLO’s “terrorist school,” Fayed has bought into the propaganda he has spent his life submersed in.

However, the call of his ancestral homeland and a filial obligation to plant his late father’s olive tree sampling in said land compel Fahed to make a deal with Yoni.  He will help the battered and bloodied pilot escape in exchange for entrée into Israel.  Initially, they are still openly hostile to each other, but an uneasy friendship develops as they work together to evade the trigger-happy Syrians (yes, one can well imagine that would be a bonding experience).

Obviously, Zaytoun is the sort of movie where the leads learn they are not so different from each other, but the supporting characters all hail from central stereotype casting. Yet, despite the very particular geo-political context, Zaytoun is surprisingly even-handed.  Frankly, it does absolutely nothing to burnish the PLO’s image, mostly portraying them as a band of thugs.  Granted, it never really explains the sort of onslaught Israel faced, but the film would be better described as simplistic rather than didactic.  Basically, Nader Rizq’s screenplay seems to suggest even the gravest of enemies can find common ground if forced to schlep an olive tree through an urban battlefield together.

The non-Israeli Stephen Dorff is completely convincing as the gruff but sensitive Yoni, looking a bit like Kiefer Sutherland in 24 (and that’s not a bad thing).  Likewise, Abdallah El Akal is also believably petulant as Fahed, nicely conveying the stop-and-start maturation his character undergoes.

This is not the film that will turn the world’s swords into ploughshares, but it works rather well on the micro-level because the central relationship is so surprisingly compelling. Although it is not nearly as moving as Riklis’s first-rate Human Resources Manager, it is about as good as peacenik cinema gets.  Recommended for fans of Israeli cinema and Dorff, Zaytoun opens today (9/20) in New York at the Village East.