“The Reports on Sarah and Saleem” snaps, crackles and pops. A taut and compelling Jerusalem-set melodrama, it effectively intertwines the personal with the political in a way that is only enhanced by that city’s fraught atmosphere and cultural dynamics.
The second feature for promising Palestinian director Muayad Alayan, “Sarah and Saleem” combines fine naturalistic acting and a psychologically complex script (by the director’s brother Rami) with Alayan’s filmmaking abilities to tell a story where unforeseen circumstances produce devastating consequences.
As the director himself has succinctly put it, “only in Jerusalem can private extramarital affairs destroy lives.”
“Sarah and Saleem” not only presents complicated individuals, it places them in a multifaceted plot whose structural pivots and twists have been worked out with an admirable precision.
The film starts with the Palestinian Saleem (Adeeb Safadi), a bakery driver who delivers croissants to trendy West Jerusalem cafés, sitting in his East Jerusalem kitchen and trying to balance the family budget.
A harsh knock at the door produces an Israeli Army team who do a savage snatch-and-grab and deposit Saleem in a room with a cool government interrogator who calmly says, “Tell me about the woman you recruited.”
Saleem does not answer, but the anguished look on his face tells us that the reality of his life is way more complicated that anyone anticipates.
What we have just witnessed is not the beginning of the story, it is exactly the midpoint. The first hour of “Sarah and Saleem” flashes back to how Saleem got into this predicament, while the second shows the devastating ways it plays out.
Before we get started, the filmmakers take a few minutes to introduce the film’s quartet of protagonists in characteristic moments.
Saleem and Sarah (Sivane Kretchner), the Israeli owner of one of those West Jerusalem cafés, are shown engaging in passionate sex. We are never told how and when this affair began, but it is exhibiting no signs of having run its course.
But an affair it is, for both participants are married to people they are nominally happy with but feel a bit of distance toward.
Saleem’s wife, Bisan (Maisa Abd Elhadi), wears a hijab and is introduced happily window shopping for baby cribs. Sarah’s husband, David (Ishai Golan), is a rising Army officer involved in investigating terrorist activities.
Also something of a character is the city of Jerusalem and its various neighborhoods, portrayed not as a mecca for tourists and religious pilgrims but as a lived-in place where people try as best they can to have normal lives.
Sarah and Saleem are observed not only with each other but in their at-home situations, filled with responsibilities and obligations that weigh on them.
Saleem, for instance, is having trouble paying the family bills, and the solicitude of a wealthy brother-in-law who is more than happy to chip in makes him feel surly and inadequate.
Sarah and her husband love their young daughter, Flora, but David is focused on his career. Being in army intelligence has mandated a series of unwanted city-to-city moves for the family and may yet lead to one more.
Though the film is too smart to spell it out, the release from the stresses of their individual lives that the affair provides Sarah and Saleem also serves as the energy that keeps it active despite the risks.
What these two don’t take into account, and what “Sarah and Saleem” carefully points out, is that in Jerusalem, an affair between an Israeli and a Palestinian adds an extra layer of complication and danger to the proceedings.
Decisions that seem innocent or mildly unsafe turn out to be life-changing, and the film’s protagonists are walking on the edge of a precipice without knowing it.
Trying to earn a little extra money by moonlighting making deliveries behind the security wall to the West Bank, Saleem takes Sarah with him on a night trip to Bethlehem.
He heedlessly gets into a fight over her at a bar — an altercation that turns out, in a beautifully intricate way no one sees coming, to have major ramifications for both of them.
“Sarah and Saleem’s” plot does lean on coincidence from time to time, but we really don’t notice because the cast, largely unfamiliar to American viewers, is so convincing.
As the lives of Sarah and Saleem, as well as Bisan and David, get more complex, so does our involvement in their story. The question of “The Reports on Sarah and Saleem” becomes not when or if the truth will come out but how much anyone will care once it does.
‘The Reports on Sarah and Saleem’
Running time: 2 hours, 7 minutes
Playing: Laemmle’s Royal, West Los Angeles; Playhouse, Pasadena; Town Center, Encino