The Lebanon War has been the setting for many notable Israeli films, most recently Lebanon and Waltz with Bashir, attempting to confront the moral hazards of their country’s relationship to Palestine and the Arab world. Fitting into the same general framework as these films, Eran Riklis’s Zaytoun, set in Lebanon during the buildup to the 1982 war, misfires in tone, depth, and political tact, dumbing down rather than offering new insights into the Israel-Palestine conflict.
The film follows the unlikely friendship between Fahed (Abdallah El Akal), a young Palestinian living in a refugee camp just outside Beirut, and Yoni (Stephen Dorff), an Israeli Air Force pilot captured by Fahed’s local PLO group when his jet crashes close to their camp. The two unite when, in exchange for help escaping captivity, Yoni promises to take the recently orphaned Fahed to see his family’s old village in Israel. What follows is a rote, uninspired story of an odd couple on the run. Given the seriousness of Yoni’s circumstances (he presumably has both his former captors and the Israeli army desperately looking for him), his adventures with Fahed feel surprisingly safe. Whatever threats the two face prove easy enough for them to evade, mostly because the people who get in their way, whether it’s a suspicious Palestinian militant or a nosy Syrian officer, demonstrate oddly bumbling behavior. This, perhaps unintentionally, gives some of Yoni and Fahed’s pricklier situations a comical twist, but drumming up a credible sense of suspense is less important to Riklis than frequently highlighting the growing inter-cultural understanding between Fahed and Yoni as they make their way to the Lebanon-Israel border.
Dorff sleepwalks his way through his role as the face of Israeli aggression, unconvincingly spewing anti-Palestine rhetoric before gradually realizing the humanity of his enemy. He also sports a ridiculously nondescript accent and, thanks to the convenient use of English as a shared language between characters as well as some contrived editing and staging, manages to get away with only speaking a handful of words in Hebrew. Combined, it all calls constant attention to how out of place he is in the film. Worse is the way Fahed carries around an olive tree throughout the film, one that he hopes to plant outside his family’s home. This perhaps was meant as an innocuous piece of sentimentalism, but it’s hard not to take Fahed’s mission as an alarmingly reductive metaphor for arguably the most intractable issue in the Israeli-Palestine conflict: the demand by Palestinians to be allowed to return to the homes they were forced to flee in 1948. The tree is also what the film’s title alludes to (zaytoun is the Arabic word for olive) and through it, of course, we eventually get a figurative olive branch. The latter is a trite symbol in the best of cases, and here it becomes just a further example of how Zaytoun trivializes its story’s complex events and relationships in an ill-advised attempt to warm the heart.