The latest from Eran Riklis ("The Syrian Bride," "The Lemon Tree"), "Zaytoun" is nothing if not a loaded proposition: In 1982 Beirut, a captive pilot and a Palestinian boy form an unlikely alliance to get back to Israel -- the older man to his wife and family, the boy to his ancestral home -- the journey being choreographed by an Israeli director with an affinity for Arab subjects and set on the eve of an infamous moment in Mideast politics. OK, you want to say, we definitely get it.
But besides generating no small amount of anxiety with his action-adventure story line, Riklis gives us two characters both plausibly sympathetic and well-acted -- 12-year-old Fahed by the precociously talented Abdallah El Akal; the flier Yoni by the American Stephen Dorff. And he creates something more than a plea for peace, or a quasi-metaphor about understanding. He makes something that may even have an impact on audiences: a very watchable movie.
Most of the film concerns the fraught-with-peril flight of Yoni and Fahed down the Lebanese coast (Haifa provided the locales) and into Israel, and much of it is beautiful. Beirut, of course, is not: The slum where Fahed and his fellow delinquents-by-default spend their days is a harrowing place, where inept elders organize boys into a half-baked militia, stoke the fires of resentment and fairly chortle when they get a hold of Yoni, whose plane has gone down nearby. Fahed has a predictably hostile take on Yoni, but the orphan's chief desire -- to plant a small olive tree in the place where his father was born -- overrides his other allegiances and he helps Yoni escape, the pair embarking on a trek that is occasionally very unlikely, but moving nonetheless.
PLOT In 1982, a downed Israeli flier and a refugee Palestinian boy make their way back to the homeland.
CAST Stephen Dorff, Abdallah El Akal
BOTTOM LINE Contrivances flourish, but film at heart is sincere, the acting fine and the story resonant. (In English, Arabic and Hebrew with English subtitles)