A road movie pairing enemies who must help each other in order to survive, “Zaytoun” again finds Israeli filmmaker Eran Riklis (“The Syrian Bride,” “The Lemon Tree”) dramatizing political conflicts in the Middle East and spreading blame for the strife around freely. It’s less allegorical than his best-known films, offering a literal, even simplistic plot whose observations about the cycle of violence are hardly new. They’re embodied in sensitive performances, though, including one from Stephen Dorff, better known for American indies and the occasional action flick than for world cinema.
Dorff plays Yoni, an Israeli fighter pilot whose plane is shot down over Beirut in 1982. A group of Palestinian refugees capture him, locking him in a makeshift jail sometimes guarded by a group of kids. Among them is Fahed (Abdallah El Akal), whose father died recently as a result of Israeli bombing.
Fahed never openly accuses Yoni of killing his father, but the idea is clearly on his mind; he’s noticeably more hostile than his friends, who are hardly welcoming (their race-you-home taunt is “last one back is a rotten Israeli!”). In a moment of pique, he shoots Yoni in the leg. Only after doing so does he realize this now-wounded man could, if freed, help Fahed sneak across the border to his familial home in a place he still refers to as Palestine. They strike an angry bargain.
Getting to Israel isn’t easy for a mixed pair who trigger suspicion or worse in everyone who sees them. Palestinian, Syrian and Lebanese soldiers threaten them; dogs track them; cab drivers cheat them; and for most of the trip, Yoni tries to ditch the boy. But as happens in movies of this sort, they stick together long enough to become friends.
As the most immediate dangers subside, the film addresses increasingly sentimental concerns: Yoni’s pregnant wife awaits his rescue; Fahed carries an olive sapling his father dreamed of planting near their old house.
But Riklis isn’t heavy-handed here, and even when the film’s plot grows a little unlikely, its tone is never sappy. That’s partly due to El Akal’s performance, which keeps humor in check and is informed by too much real-world loss to ever be cute. Dorff’s relative fame doesn’t prevent him from playing his role credibly, and might help with American audiences who feel the pair’s travails play out with less excitement than the high-danger setting might suggest.
DeFore is a freelance writer.
Unrated. At the Avalon. Contains violence and some strong language. In Hebrew, Arabic and English with subtitles. 105 minutes.