TEL AVIV ON FIRE
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Sameh Zoabi
Screenwriter: Sameh Zoabi, Dan Kleinman
Cast: Kais Nashef, Lubna Azabal, Maisa Abd Elhadi, Yaniv Biton
Screened at: Cohen Media Group, NYC, 7/11/19
Opens: August 2, 2019 in New York and Los Angeles
Think of the most talked-about rivalry within a country today. Israel has a Jewish majority and a Muslim minority and, to my knowledge, has blessed far too few intermarriages between the groups. In fact if you set up a TV program with a proposed marriage between the clans, you might get little support from either side. But in “Tel Aviv on Fire,” such an arrangement is possible because in TV soap operas, anything can happen. Sameh Zoabi, co-writer and director, gives us a light comedy that spoofs soap operas with their far-fetched plots and more importantly treats the possibility of a marriage between a Jewish general and an Arab spy. You might consider this the kind of story that would not gain prominence from either side, but “Tel Aviv on Fire” was not only showcased at the 34th Haifa Film Festival but garnered a best actor award for a Palestinian actor. Zoabi is in his métier on the subject of cultural divisions, having directed “Under the Same Sun,” a story about two businessmen from opposite tribes set up a solar energy company, and “Man Without a Cell Phone” about modernization coming to a Palestinian village.
In “Tel Aviv on Fire,” Salam Abbas (Kais Nahef) serves as a low level movie production assistant living in Jerusalem and working in Ramallah. He’s a good-natured slacker given a job by his producer uncle Bassem (Nadim Sawahlha). He is fluent in Hebrew and charged with correcting the way characters on a soap opera speak. Because of his low status, his ex-girlfriend Maryam (Maisa Abd Alhady) is not interested, which motivates Salam with the goal of impressing her. When a clueless Salam is given the job of screenwriter for the soap, he has his chance to become Maryam’s hero but lacks the talent for writing.
The soap being satirized, “Tel Aviv on Fire,” is lightly anti-Zionist but not to the extent that would alert Israeli censors. The cheesy soap-opera plot finds Marwan (Ashraf Farah) training Tala (Lubna Azabal) to be a spy, to use the name Rachel, and acquire military secrets held by General Yehuda Edelman (Yousef Sweid). The episodes are not yet complete. As Salam is writing, he is stopped at a checkpoint separating Ramallah from East Jerusalem by Captain Assi Tzur (Yaniv Biton), who recalls that the soap is eagerly watched by both Arabs and Jews. The captain grabs the incomplete script from Samar, making his own suggestions and even insisting that the captain’s script be utilized (and his portrait held on a shelf in the background). The captain wants his family to be impressed that he knows how the story will proceed and insists that Tala and Edelman fall in love and marry.
While this looks as obvious as any soap would be, the entire film is full of surprises, unpredictable right until a sudden coup de théâtre in the final seconds. The entire movie is filled with ironic humor, not the kind that seeks belly-laughs but goes for more subtle, satiric notes. While the entire ensemble performs nicely—probably having to go through may takes as they involuntarily smile at the ironies while acting—you can see why Kais Nahef would take away a best actor award at the Venice Film Festival while Haifa’s 34th International Film Festival awarded “Tel Aviv on Fire” best film and best screenplay. Nahef exudes loser authenticity, turning the tide and winning the respect and affection of his ex-girlfriend Maryam. This is one of the best comedies to come out of the Middle East in recent times.
In Arabic and Hebrew with English subtitles.
97 minutes. © 2019 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online
Story – B+
Acting – B+
Technical – B
Overall – B+