Zaytoun opens in 1982 Beirut, where the likable scamp Fahed (Abdallah El Akal) sells chewing gum and cigarettes on the streets while trying not to get sent back to the Palestinian refugee ghetto where he lives with his father and grandfather. Fahed, who is 12, has grown up under the constant shadow of death and danger. Lebanon is in the midst of a civil war, and the country is on the verge of being invaded by Israel. But he and his friends make the best of their lot, playing soccer, skipping school and getting into mischief. They also start training under the guidance of local PLO commanders. The combination of youthful irreverence and military indoctrination is jarring — these are kids being taught to shoot firearms and bred to hate the Jewish people — and director Eran Riklis shoots these early sequences in a breezy style, with a fluid camera roaming the streets, that helps put you into the mindset of his characters.
Then two things happen: Fahed’s father is killed before his eyes by a bomb, and an Israeli Air Force pilot, Yoni (Stephen Dorff) is shot down and captured by the Palestinian militia. Fahed takes out all his pain and misery on the prisoner, who is being held for ransom. Through a series of somewhat contrived incidents, Fahed and Yoni embark on a dangerous journey to the Israeli border, where the pilot promises the boy sanction.
Screenwriter Nazer Rizq uses a simple road-movie structure to illustrate the daunting complexity of the Middle East conflict. Fahed and Yoni are under constant threat from Lebanese police officers, murderous Palestinian guerrillas, snipers and mine fields. Although you know from the start the pair will eventually form a father-son bond, their relationship remains contentious for a surprisingly long time. Fahed swallows the key to Yoni’s handcuffs, refusing to free him even after they’ve joined forces. A bullet wound to the leg is treated seriously, with all its ensuing consequences, instead of the just-a-scratch approach taken by most other movies.
Despite a shaky accent, Dorff is fine as the soldier forced to negotiate with a capricious and combative teenager in order to save his own life. The young Akal is a hugely charismatic actor who brings dimension to Fahed’s flinty attitude and his refusal to fully trust anyone. Zaytoun occasionally takes some surreal detours, such as a ride in a taxi cab with a driver obsessed with the Bee Gees’ Stayin’ Alive. There are suspenseful sequences too, including a cliffhanger confrontation at a gas station where there appears to be no way out. The movie acknowledges the horrors of civil war without ever really delving into them, and the happy ending, while unlikely, at least doesn’t barrel past all plausibility. The story ends with a compromise, but a hopeful one, and if Zaytoun ultimately feels a bit too mild-mannered and leisurely, you come away savoring the time you spent with this oddest of couples.
Cast: Stephen Dorff, Abdallah El Akal, Ali Suliman, Alice Taglioni.
Director: Eran Riklis.
Screenwriter: Nazer Rizq.
Producers: Frederick A. Ritzenberg, Gareth Unwin.
A Strand Releasing release. Running time: 110 minutes. Vulgar language, brief violence, adult themes. In English, Arabic and Hebrew with English subtitles. Opens Friday Oct. 4 in Miami-Dade: O Cinema Miami Shores, Bill Cosford Cinema; in Palm Beach: Delray, Shadowood, Living Room.