‘Tel Aviv on Fire’ Review: Mideast Conflict as Soap Opera and Farce

Can anyone make a sweet and silly comedy out of a subject as grim and intractable as the Israeli-Palestinian situation? For Sameh Zoabi, the director of “Tel Aviv on Fire” (who wrote the script with Dan Kleinman), the answer to the question is another question. What else is there?

For Salam (Kais Nashif), a skinny, sad-eyed underachiever who lives in Jerusalem, there are a few possible answers to that question, none of which seem terribly promising at first. There is Mariam (Maisa Abd Elhadi), a former maybe-girlfriend Salam is still in love with, and there’s also a job in Ramallah, acquired by the most literal kind of nepotism.

Salam’s Uncle Bassam (Nadim Sawalha) is a television producer who has hired his hapless nephew to help out on a bilingual period potboiler also called “Tel Aviv on Fire.” Since Salam is fluent in Hebrew, Bassam thinks he might be able to check the scripts for mistakes. Salam either fails spectacularly at even that simple job or succeeds beyond anyone’s wildest dreams. Like nearly everything else in this sharp-eyed, good-natured film (Zoabi’s second fiction feature), it’s a matter of perspective.

Neither the show nor the movie is as incendiary as the title makes it sound. The TV version, shot in the emphatic style of an Egyptian Ramadan soap opera, is popular with both Arab and Jewish audiences (and especially with women). It takes place in 1967, and concerns a Palestinian spy who seduces an Israeli general in the service of her people’s cause.

Salam’s eventual predicament mirrors hers in some respects. He has his own fraught, duplicitous relationship with an Israeli military officer. Stopped at a checkpoint between Ramallah and Jerusalem after his first day at work, he allows Assi, the officer in charge (Yaniv Biton), to believe that he’s actually a writer of “Tel Aviv on Fire.” Assi, abusing his power in a relatively benign way, turns himself into Salam’s secret writing partner. Both men come to have personal investments in the season’s arc. Salam wants to use the show to win back Mariam, while Assi hopes that he can impress his wife, who is a fan of the show.

The political antagonism between Assi and Salam hardly needs to be spelled out, and Zoabi has an acute sense of the asymmetrical distribution of power between Jews and Arabs in Israel and the Palestinian territories. Nobody needs to be a monster or a martyr. Assi is a bit of a bully, Salam is a bit of a mook, and the film doesn’t force them into a too-easy friendship.

Salam might be described as a pessoptimist, to borrow a word from the English title of Emile Habiby’s 1974 novel, an absurdist classic, about a Palestinian everyman perpetually caught between hope and despair. In that book, as in this film, ordinary life is impossible to disentangle from political trauma, and comedy sprouts from misery and humiliation. Salam’s ambitions are modest enough — he would like to keep his job, maintain his dignity and have a chance with Mariam — but pursuing them pitches him toward catastrophe, farce or both.

The small-screen “Tel Aviv on Fire” plays for larger stakes with proportionately greater ridiculousness. The character who links the two worlds is Tala (Lubna Azabal), the series’ lead actress, who has somewhat reluctantly returned from expatriate glamour in Paris for the role. She also adds a further complication to Salam’s hectic existence: He must somehow write episodes that satisfy her narcissism, Assi’s fragile ego and the ideological agenda of Uncle Bassam’s unseen backers.

It’s a lot, and “Tel Aviv on Fire” (the movie) sometimes feels like a sitcom season compressed into a breathless feature film. The story risks being overwhelmed along with its protagonist — pulled apart by too many competing arcs that collide in ways that aren’t always graceful.

But on the other hand, too neat a movie might risk inauthenticity. Messiness may be Zoabi’s moral as well as his method. “Tel Aviv on Fire” (in both incarnations) has to fulfill narrative conventions that call for a measure of resolution in a setting where the chances of resolving anything seem to diminish by the day. The idea of a happy ending — or, for that matter, a tragic ending, or an ending of any kind — is downright laughable. Which may be to say that when optimism is in short supply, a sense of humor can’t hurt.

Tel Aviv on Fire

Not rated. In Arabic and Hebrew, with subtitles. Running time: 1 hour 40 minutes.

Tel Aviv on Fire

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A.O. Scott is the co-chief film critic. He joined The Times in 2000 and has written for the Book Review and The New York Times Magazine. He is also the author of “Better Living Through Criticism.” @aoscott

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