MVFF: Zaytoun (B)

There are so many good films set in the context of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, it’s almost become a genre all its own. (One we loved was a documentary in 2010 called My Precious Life.) But because there have been so many, the bar has been set fairly high for new ones. Five years ago at the Mill Valley Film Festival, we were treated to director Eran Riklis‘s marvelous Lemon Tree. The producers of Zaytoun, (“olive” in Arabic) convinced Riklis to direct another film in this genre, and while it’s certainly a well-done film, it doesn’t quite measure up to his earlier work.

The setup is different, but the plot is predictable. An Israeli fighter pilot (Stephen Dorff), is forced to eject from his plane, and ends up in a Palestinian refugee camp in Beirut. A 12-year-old boy (Abdallah El Akal) is initially assigned to guard the downed pilot, but over time their relationship evolves. The cast are very good, as are all of the production elements and screenplay.

So why doesn’t it get an “A”? To be honest, it’s just a bit too polished. Part of the charm of Lemon Tree is its moderate budget and production values. The story is everything. In Zaytoun I found the Hollywood-style cinematography, editing and sound to be very competent, but just a bit too big for the story. I don’t know if that makes any sense for you, but that’s how I felt during and for the 24 hours following the screening.

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