A determinedly easygoing comedy about the Israeli-Palestinian divide, “Tel Aviv on Fire” gets by on the low-keyed assurance of its cast and its medium-grade amusements.
The film takes its title from the fictional soap opera at the story’s center: a show, produced in Ramallah, set in the run-up to the June 1967 Six-Day War. A success with both Arab and Israeli audiences, the soap follows the exploits of a Palestinian spy who slips into the affections of a Israeli general for surveillance and intel purposes. The spy reports back to her Palestinian revolutionary lover. The lead actress (Lubna Azabal) who plays the spy, as one of the show’s disgruntled writers puts it, is “a French diva who barely speaks Arabic.”
Offstage, the real drama bubbles up around mild-mannered Salam, played with great, understated skill by Kais Nashef. A Jerusalem resident who copes with the border checkpoint twice a day, he’s a lowly production assistant, the nephew of the show’s producer. Salam’s chief task is helping the actors with their Hebrew pronunciation. Interrogated one day by hard-nosed border guard Assi (Yaniv Biton), Salam panics (he blinks a few extra times when under pressure) and pretends to be a writer on the soap opera Assi’s wife is so crazy about.
Before you can say “What’s Arabic and what’s Hebrew for ‘Get Shorty’?” Assi has essentially blackmailed Salam (who’s trying not to blow his chance at becoming a staff writer) into refashioning entire storylines and political sympathies within the show.
“Tel Aviv on Fire” works familiar ideas divertingly. Under pressure from Assi, Salam struggles to find ways to make the soap opera love story a real love story, one that ends with an Arab/Israeli wedding, not just another suicide bomb fatality. Meantime Salam’s longtime crush, a nurse (played by the excellent Maïsa Abd Elhadi ), finds certain details and turns of phrase of their often contentious relationship popping up in the show’s dialogue.
The comedy’s co-writer and director, Sameh Zoabi, has made three narrative features to date. Born in the Arab village of Iksal, in Israel, near Nazareth, he attended film school in New York and has lately taught at New York University. His touch is humane, restrained sometimes to the point of diffidence, but genuinely interested in locating small and large truths within broad comic concepts.
At one point in “Tel Aviv on Fire” Salam pleads with his producer uncle to end the soap’s season with the unlikely wedding. He doesn’t buy it at first. Such romantic fantasies amid such grim political realities won’t wash with the show’s financial backers, for one thing. “It’s another Oslo Peace Accord‚" the uncle says of his nephew’s romantic folly. "The big illusion that changes nothing.” The movie is more of a surface dweller, occasionally diving beneath the pleasantries. But Zoabi is both clear-eyed and an idealist, which makes the comedy interesting.