Fanciful Thriller About Israeli-Palestinian Bonding: My Review of Zaytoun

C+ Heartwarming wartime thriller

  • Written by Nader Rizq
  • Directed by Eran Riklis

Think Hell in the Pacific. Two soldiers on opposing sides must work together to survive. And in doing so, they find each other’s humanity. Except that this time, one of the soldiers is a pre-teen, and the world they’re trying to escape from is war-torn Lebanon of the early 1980s. If you don’t know someone personally, they probably want to kill you.

Actually, that description sounds a lot better than the actual movie–a disappointment from the director of Lemon Tree. The thriller scenes range from the exciting to the ridiculous to the conveniently unexplained. The character-bonding scenes are often predicable and overly sentimental. And in the third act, everything falls apart.

Fahed (Abdallah El Akal), a Palestinian boy living in imagea Beirut refugee camp, trains to be a fighter to one day liberate his homeland. But instead, he helps an Israeli prisoner escape. His price? He wants to travel with the escaped POW Yoni (Stephen Dorff) and plant a baby tree by his parents’ old home.

Of course the two hate and mistrust each other from the start. They stick together because they have to. And just as obviously–at least if you know anything about movies–they’re going to bond in the course of the trip. First, they’re protecting each other for their own selfish reasons. Soon, they’re doing it because they care.

The film occasionally feels as if it was cut by someone who didn’t care. At one point, They’re chased by men with machine guns, and are trapped in a way where their only options are surrender or death. Cut to the next morning, and they’re free and unharmed. Yoni wears handcuffs through much of the film; Fahed had swallowed the key. Then, one morning, Yoni is happy that he’s no longer wearing cuffs. No explanation.

Despite these shortcomings, there’s much to like about Zaytoun. The film provides an evocative and–I suspect–accurate picture of life in Beirut 30 years ago, when factional war and Israeli bombing were shredding the country’s social fabric, and the Palestinians were at the bottom of a very bloody pecking order. The two leads are likeable, and while many bonding scenes ring false, just as many of them ring true.

In fact, I could recommend the film with more enthusiasm if it wasn’t for the third act. I can’t discuss this without serious spoiling, so read on only at your own risk.

Warning: Spoilers beyond this point!!!!

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About half an hour before the film ends, Fahed and Yoni make it to the UN buffer zone, where it’s an easy step to Israel proper. Suddenly, no one’s life is in imminent danger and the film is no longer a thriller.

But there’s still an interesting question: What will happen to Fahed? They’re not going to allow a Palestinian orphan–and one who has been trained to fight "the Zionist entity"–to simply live in Israel.

The UN’s solution? Send him back to the refugee camp and the grandfather who is his only living relative. This is, almost certainly, sending him to his death. After all, someone must have figured out that he helped Yoni escape.

Yet this danger doesn’t occur to anybody. Not to Fahed, Yoni, the kindly UN doctor, and certainly not to the filmmakers. His leaving for the camp is the movie’s big hug happy ending.

But not before Fahed and Yoni drive around Israel, looking for the deserted and half-forgotten town where Fahed will plant the tree. After an exciting second act, where their lives were in constant danger, this mild road trip is a letdown. Besides, the two already love each other and there’s no more character development needed.

Zayoun is a film of good intentions. But good intentions can only take you so far.