Stephen Dorff stars – somewhat bizarrely – as an Israeli fighter pilot who through an unfortunate mechanical malfunction finds himself stranded in Beirut in the latest film from Lemon Tree (2008) director Eran Riklis. A Middle Eastern road movie-cum-buddy flick, Zaytoun (2012) uses the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as the catalyst for a coming together of cultures with all the subtlety of an air raid. Taken hostage by a group of radical Palestinian insurgents in 1980s Beirut, Yoni (Dorff) builds an unconventional bond with Fahed (Abdallah El Akal) a precocious war orphan described by his friends as the Palestinian ‘Zico’ due to his footballing skills.
After the death of one of his closest friends, Fahed agrees to help Yoni escape in return for his help getting across the border to his families former village. The two of them embark on a perilous road trip which sees them come up against heavily policed check points, mine fields and political interventions all whilst being pursued by a group of incensed Palestinian revolutionaries. Beautifully shot, with the Lebanese countryside a suitably elegant, yet warn torn backdrop for the film’s events to unfold, director Riklis certainly has a keen sense for fashioning opulent mise-en-scene. However, whilst rich in visual flourishes almost every other aspect of Zaytoun is left wanting.
Despite a series of engineered and clichéd ‘situations’ punctuating Yoni and Fahed’s hazardous journey, Zaytoun is surprisingly short on tension, with each and every potential danger evaded though a collection of jarring edits or implausible events. Worst of all is perhaps the heavily contrived attempts to manufacture a sentimental backbone out of these ludicrous proceedings, clearly intended to make the film’s climatic finale far more emotionally involving than it eventual transpires – with character development laxly resigned for cheap manipulation techniques.
Feeling far too artificial and unnatural to be taken remotely seriously, Zaytoun lacks the raw emotive resonance of Beaufort (2007) or the tense and engaging power of Lebanon (2009) in depicting the Palestinian/Israeli conflict. All this is without even touching on the decision to cast Stephen Dorff as an Israeli soldier, with this incredibly wooden actor lacking the range of emotive responses, let alone the cultural and lingual knowledge to undertake such a demanding role.
Despite some admirable visual flourishes and a generally interesting premise, Zaytoun is sadly guilty of far too many mind-boggling errors, turning this tale of camaraderie in the face of national ideology into an arduous slog. Throughout, Riklis inexplicably avoids the true horrors of warfare and the complex nature of the middle east conflict.