Home Video Hovel: Zaytoun, by Mat Bradley-Tschirgi
Set during the 1982 Lebanon War, Zaytoun weaves a suspenseful tale of a Palestinian teenager who helps an Israeli POW escape Lebanon in exchange for a promise to reach Palestine. Director Eran Riklis has delivered a film with a solid premise and subtle acting that plays things a bit too safe. This melodrama hits the right notes, but its narrative lacks a darker edge that could have ratcheted up the suspense a notch or two.
Fahed (played by Abdallah El Akal) enjoys playing soccer with his friend Ahmed (played by Adham Abu Aqel) and harassing the Israeli soldiers patrolling the city streets of Beirut. A strategic airstrike results in his father being blown to bits. The next day, Ahmed gets picked off by a sniper. Fueled by his Dad’s promise to plant his olive tree in Palestine, Fahed agrees to free Israeli Air Force pilot Yoni (played by Stephen Dorff). The pair must travel across the myriad checkpoints of Lebanon. Their journey is filled with danger, and their relationship is filled with prejudice. The screenplay by Nader Rizq keeps speeches to a minimum, creating a naturalistic quality to the dialogue.
Fahed and Yoni’s relationship develops in a fashion that is not as sappy as it could have been. Abdallah El Akal is a revelation in the lead. He makes the transition from a cocky youth to a dutiful friend look easy. Less impressive is Stephen Dorff’s turn as Yoni. Dorff, who had a memorable hammy supporting role as Commander Burke in Uwe Boll’s film adaptation of the survival horror video game Alone in the Dark, dials things down a notch to match the realistic tone of the story. This is the right instinct for a film like Zaytoun, but he sinks his performance with a dodgy accent that zaps his character of any personality. He has a nice interplay with El Akal throughout the film, but he should have stuck with his native accent. His accent is as cringe inducing as Keanu Reeves’ in Francis Ford Coppola’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula.
The film looks like a mainstream Hollywood film of the 1990s with crisp photography and a relatively steady camera. This approach makes the film come off as more of a fairy tale, which is fitting considered the muted violence. A scene that captures the film’s sometimes rosy depiction of danger involves Fahed dribbling his soccer ball in the middle of a field. He is having a good time, reminding himself of the soccer games he would play with his friends while skipping school. The camera pans to the left, revealing a sign labeled “Minefield.” Yoni shouts at Fahed to stop playing as we see mines littering the field in every direction. The score is unobstrusive, jacking up the suspense of the scene. In this humdinger of a setup, any sense of suspense is deflated by nothing really happening. Fahed doesn’t lose a limb. His soccer ball does not explode, nor does his precious olive tree. Both characters make it out fine, and the scene plays false as a result.
A decent effort with some gorgeous cinematography, Zaytoun tells its story well. It could have been a bit rougher around the edges. Despite its whitewashed approach, Abdallah El Akal’s performance as Fahed is enough to recommend the film. A native Israeli actor might have delivered a more authentic performance than Stephen Dorff, which could have elevated Zaytoun to the cinematic heights it deserves.