It would not surprise me if the daily reviews for “Zaytoun,” Eran Riklis’ new film which opens on Sept. 20, chide the Israeli filmmaker for sentimentalizing the film’s central relationship. The movie traces the slowly growing friendship between Yoni (Stephen Dorff), a downed Israeli flyer, and his erstwhile captor Fahed (Abdallah El Akal), a 12-year-old Palestinian refugee who helps him escape captivity during the first Lebanon War. As the pair move from open enmity to tough love and eventually to mutual respect, it would be easy to overlook the intelligent emotional distance with which Riklis treats them, to mistake the film for an easy celebration of the Rodney King-can’t-we-all-get-along school of ineffectual good will.
In reality, Riklis treats the material with enough detachment and wry humor to keep it from becoming a runny treacle bun of a movie. He starts in the very first moment, a vertiginous and lengthy tracking shot that immediately establishes the universe in which Fahed lives: the shattered streets of Beirut, the kaleidoscope of street vendors, scruffy kids and men with guns that is his environment. Riklis keeps both the camera and his cast moving, never letting us settle into a single viewpoint for more than a few seconds.
“I wanted to do two things with that shot,” Riklis said in an interview last month. “I wanted to grab you and take you into this world. And I wanted to open with a big, energetic statement of style, to say, ‘Hey, you’re entering the cinema!’”
The result is a more expansive visual style than is seen in much of his other work; that shot is an homage, he says, to early Martin Scorsese films like “Mean Streets.”
The bravura entrance also reflects Riklis’ image of Beirut in the early ’80s.
“That kind of energy has a lot to do with Beirut in those days,” he said. “It’s also important that in the first 12 minutes of so of the film there would be all this activity, because after that the film is basically a two-man show.”
Or one-man-and-a-boy show.
El Akal is, quite simply, a natural. The kid is photogenic and camera-smart. Howard Hawks famously said that the essential component of star quality was IS that “the camera’s got to like you.” Riklis’ camera is just crazy about El Akal.
“He was a natural choice,” Riklis said. “What you see on the screen is what he’s like in real life. I just told him, ‘You stay with me and I’ll guide you.’”
That approach pays off handsomely in the film’s last shot, with the solitary Fahed reviewing the events of the recent past. Since the shot is essentially silent, Riklis could talk the young actor through the emotions of this contemplative moment, asking him, “Are you happy or sad? You are a survivor. … You can do anything.”
Stephen Dorff, by contrast, is a canny film veteran, a sometimes fussily method actor who is given to on-camera excess. Here, however, working mainly in Hebrew, he has to rein himself in with the result that he gives an uncommonly restrained but deeply engaged performance, one of the most satisfying of his career.
For obvious reasons, Riklis had to allow Haifa to stand in for Beirut. Again he had “Mean Streets” in mind when he began to shoot. “It is supposed to be New York City, but most of it was shot in L.A.,” he recalled. “You cannot tell from watching the film.” For “Zaytoun,” Riklis and his team “did a lot of research and used a lot of period detail and corrected some things in post-production. It’s a 100-percent Israeli film, but we think it looks like Beirut is on the screen.”
This project was an oddity for Riklis, a film that came out of someone else’s story yet wasn’t a literary adaptation. For his next film, which is already in the editing stages, Riklis returns to the bookshelf and his own screenwriting, with an adaptation of Sayed Kashua’s novel “Dancing Arabs.”
Regardless of the source of his material, he has a basic rule that governs his work.
“I try to be true to the local reality but accessible to a world audience,” the filmmaker said with a smile.
“Zaytoun” appears to fit both needs handsomely.
“Zaytoun” opens on Sept. 20 at the Lincoln Plaza (62nd St. and Broadway) and the City Cinemas Village East (Second Avenue and 12th Street).