Well-intentioned but heavy-handed, the Israeli film “Zaytoun” is a road movie featuring the unlikely pairing of a 12-year-old Palestinian refugee and a downed Israeli fighter pilot. It’s probably best viewed as a fable that tries to strike a hopeful note amid the many woes of the Middle East, but the blunt filmmaking and the near-sentimentality make it hard to buy into.
The film is set in Beirut in 1982, during the Lebanese Civil War. Young Fahed (Abdallah El Akal) doesn’t care much for school — he leaves the refugee camp every day and endures the intense hostility (and gunfire) of the locals to try to earn a pittance selling gum and cigarettes. Like the other Palestinian boys, he is also undergoing training by the PLO.
When an Israeli pilot (Stephen Dorff) is shot down and captured by the PLO, Fahed becomes one of his guards. The boy, who has recently lost his widowed father in an Israeli air raid, is burning with hatred for the captive. But he also wants to get back to his ancestral land to plant an olive tree that has been cared for by his father.
The pilot offers a deal: If the boy frees him, he’ll take him where he wants to go. Deal accepted.
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Their adventures together as they head for the border include close calls at checkpoints, negotiating a minefield and evading pursuers. There’s comic relief from a taxi driver with a taste for the Bee Gees. It’s mostly predictable stuff, and it doesn’t help that the movie has a soft center.
“Zaytoun” is by no means blind to the horrors of the war it depicts, but much of what happens here seems surprisingly lightweight, and its optimism, although admirable, isn’t convincing given the context.
“Zaytoun” has its moments, especially its early depiction of scrappy Fahed’s life in the war zone, but it finally settles for peddling a message — why can’t we all be friends? — that’s far too easy.