Pitted Olive: Riklis’ Period Piece Adventure a Sappy Fantasy
Israeli director Eran Riklis returns to familiar territory with Zaytoun, using another unlikely friendship scenario between a Palestinian and Israeli which he used to great effect in previous titles, such as the excellent 2008 film Lemon Tree. Broadening his international appeal with a well known American star, Riklis ends up making an overly sentimental film that tends to overstep the bounds of realism as he explores a distinct time period in early 80’s war torn Lebanon. While it’s not a wholly unlikeable film, there’s just a few too many out of place elements to make this anything more than a predictably tame tale.
It’s 1982 and there’s a war going on between Israel and Lebanon. In the years leading up to this, many Palestinian families lived as refugees in Beirut, but were segregated into camps, where they were hardly treated with respect. A young boy, Fahed (Abedallah El Akal) lives with his father and grandfather, carousing about the city with a group of other young boys and a dog they all share, named Churchill. The boys sell cigarettes and are privy to daily acts of hatred and threats of violence. Yet Fahed seems unfazed for the most part until one day his father is killed, with only a potted olive tree as an inheritance, which his father refused to plant until they were back home on their native soil. When an Israeli fighter pilot, Yoni (Stephen Dorff) gets shot down and taken hostage, Fahed makes a pact to let the pilot go free if he will help him cross the border. And thus begins a road trip buddy bonding film as these two would-be enemies forge a friendship amidst great danger. The only trouble is, even if they are able to cross successfully, will the Israelis let Fahed stay or send him back to his ailing grandfather in a war torn area, virtually an orphan?
There’s been an influx of cinema lately dealing with the current and historical Israeli-Palestinian conflict (another recent period piece recounting 1969 Palestine, When I Saw You from Annemarie Jacir opens this year and also recounts a young Palestinian boy’s experiences in a refugee camp). The trouble with Zaytoun (which is Arabic for ‘olive’) is that it lives in a cinematic fantasy land, assuming that once bonded, the blind hatred people harbor for those they consider to be enemies will simply dissipate. And try as he might, Stephen Dorff, who does give a decent performance, is woefully distracting and miscast as an Israeli pilot. Yeah, he tries a slight accent, but one has to keep reminding themselves that he isn’t supposed to be American. He makes a believable bond with the spunky Abdellah El Akal, and you’d want to believe that their relationship is possible, as if simply giving peace a chance was a great balm that’s never been tried before, but it simply feels too contrived to feel completely successful. And what does happen to the olive tree is really a thankless victory, for Riklis may have donned rosy tinted glasses here, but he can’t rewrite history.
Danish cinematographer Dan Lausten (who often collaborates with director Ole Bornedal) is on hand to make the film look great, and Riklis attempts some comedic flourishes like a friendly taxi driver blasting “Staying Alive,” on repeat, but it doesn’t quite make a realistic connection. Between The Syrian Bride (2004) and the wonderful Lemon Tree (2008), Riklis has proven himself to be a master storyteller. However, both those entries were penned by himself and Suha Arraf, while with Zaytoun he’s directing a first time screenplay from Nader Rizq. One can only hope he will return with a film he also penned.
Reviewed on September 10 at the 2012 Toronto International Film Festival – SPECIAL PRESENTATIONS Programme.