Genial mirth and the nightmarish gloom of the Middle East do not sound like natural companions, but the droll and delightful “Tel Aviv on Fire” has made the impossible possible.
Directed by Palestinian Sameh Zoabi, what we have here is a sly, very human comedy that is just serious enough around the edges about the Israel-Palestine imbroglio to make us sit up and take notice. It can’t have been easy, but it’s a complete treat to experience.
As co-written by Zoabi and Dan Kleinman with a tongue-in-cheek sense of humor, “Tel Aviv” has very much of an insider sensibility, even making the region’s shared passion for the tastiest, most authentic hummus a key subplot.
The film’s heart is a two-pronged approach that alternates between separate realities just as its characters go back and forth between Israeli and Palestinian worlds.
The first reality isn’t a reality at all, it’s a passionately pro-Palestinian daily soap opera that gives the film its name, a show shot in Ramallah that’s just as popular in Israel as in the West Bank.
Written and directed in the over-the-top telenovela style, the soap is set in 1967, “three months before the Six Day War” a subtitle ominously tells us.
We begin the show’s plot with a man and woman alone in a room, their emotions pitched through the roof. He is a Palestinian spymaster and she is a spy, given a false name and passport and tasked with seducing an Israeli general.
“Find this man. We need his secrets to defeat the Zionists who stole our land,” the spy is told in between passionate embraces. In a trice she emerges as Rachel, proprietor of Tel Aviv’s most chic French restaurant with the general firmly in her sights.
While this soap opera world is hyperdramatic, shot in vivid colors that enhance its big emotions, the lives of the people who put it on are much more mundane though equally amusing.
Low man on the show’s totem pole is Salam, an underachieving slacker who has a job as a production assistant only because his uncle Bassam (Nadim Sawalha) is the show’s producer and creator.
Impeccably played by Kais Nashif (who won a best actor prize at Venice in 2018) with the perfect dazed and confused look, Salam lives in Israel with his mother and is ineffectually trying to reconcile with old girlfriend Mariam (Maisa Abd Elhadi), the woman he infuriated by the inept way he broke off with her.
Only on the set to correct the characters’ Hebrew, natural busybody Salam starts to question the dialogue in a way that appeals to language-challenged Tala (Lubna Azabal), the French actress who plays Rachel, but enrages the show’s screenwriter.
Salam’s gift for saying the wrong thing gets him into trouble at the checkpoint at the Israeli border, where he pretends to be “Tel Aviv on Fire’s” writer to impress the man in charge, brusque Army commander Assi (a very funny Yaniv Biton).
When another soldier dismisses the show as “anti-Semitic,” Assi cracks “it’s called ‘Tel Aviv On Fire,’ did you expect it to be Zionist?”
Assi’s wife, as it turns out, is also a big fan of “Tel Aviv on Fire,” and the commander himself has very definite ideas of how he wants the show to turn out.
So definite, in fact, that Assi tells Salam unless the show changes its stripes and goes in his pro-Israel direction, he will refuse to let the young man through the checkpoint he needs to cross every day.
If Salam not actually being the show’s writer wasn’t problem enough, his uncle the showrunner, not to mention the show’s overseas backers, have very different ideas about the conclusion. (Hint: Bassam very proudly says he stole it from, of all things, “The Maltese Falcon.”)
If you think this situation is contrived, you haven’t heard the half of it, but because the expert actors in the cast play it like it was the most realistic of scenarios, the humor and the drama continuously build.
While serious points are made here — for instance a throwaway reference to the Oslo Accord as “another illusion that changed nothing” — this film’s emphasis, as it should be, is on humor and character.
For more than anything, “Tel Aviv On Fire” is Salam’s story, a delicious investigation of the tightrope he walks between the Israeli army and his Palestinian colleagues as well as his dilemma of needing to write and not knowing the first thing about it. The more his personal and professional lives intertwine, the more amusing this unlikely comic success becomes.
Running time: 1 hour, 37 minutes
Playing: Laemmle’s Royal, West Los Angeles; Laemmle Playhouse 7, Pasadena; Laemmle Town Center 5, Encino