Released nationally December 26
Zaytoun: high-profile American male lead (Stephen Dorff)? Tick
So, finally, the first fruit of the long-awaited Israel-British film co-production treaty has reached the UK. Zaytoun, a kind of improbable step-bromance-cum-road movie, between a shot-down Israeli air force pilot and a Palestinian child refugee, was one of the opening gala films at this year's UKJFF and received a rapturous audience reception.
The film, set in the Lebanon of 1982, is directed by the leading Israeli film-maker, Eran Riklis, and produced by Gareth Unwin, the award-winning producer of The King's Speech. Unwin, garlanded with awards for the latter, was searching hard for a follow-up movie to provide him with equal success.
I hope his instinct is correct about Zaytoun. Rarely can a film have had so many anxious godparents hovering around its cot, praying for it to do well. It has all the right boxes ticked. High-profile American male lead (Stephen Dorff)? Tick. Gorgeous photography? Tick. Take him home and give him a good meal talented junior lead (Abdallah el Akal)? Tick, tick, tick.
That's before we even get to the symmetry of a script written by a Palestinian Israeli (Nader Rizq), directed by a Jewish Israeli (Riklis), and produced by the aforesaid Unwin. Oh, and just to add to the sense of familiarity, for UKJFF audiences, one of the two female actors in the film is Alice Taglioni, who stars in the festival's opening screening, Paris Manhattan.
So there are many good and hopeful things about Zaytoun. But the truth is that it's just a little bit too clunky, a little bit too contrived, to work well as a five-star feature. The suspension of disbelief required to accept that Palestinian fighters would allow a group of children to guard their top-class Israeli prisoner is hiked up all too often, as the long arm of coincidence requires the audience to accept escape after escape and near-miss after near-miss as Yoni the pilot and Fahed the refugee make their way towards the Israel-Lebanon border.
There's plenty of politically correct Israel-bashing (as voiced by the Palestinians) and a fair amount of politically incorrect Palestinian-bashing, courtesy of the Lebanese. In the end, Yoni's and Fahed's is a relationship that has no future with a border in between, as the pilot returns to Israel and Fahed goes back to the uncertain miseries of a Palestinian refugee camp. I couldn't help thinking that though the film's central message was probably that peace is possible once the enemies get to know each other, a sequel would probably show Yoni bombing Fahed's camp to smithereens. Sad but true.