×
You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

Film Review: ‘Tel Aviv on Fire’

A genial comedy on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict at its best when sending up soap opera excesses.

Director:
Sameh Zoabi
With:
Kais Nashef, Lubna Azabal, Yaniv Biton,

Official Site: https://www.imdb.com/title/tt5791098/?ref_=fn_al_tt_1

Given how illuminating comedies about impossible situations can be, it’s a great pity so few deal with the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. When they do crop up, like “Tel Aviv on Fire,” reactions tend to be relief – “Finally we can laugh about this!” – or uncritical support coming from a well-meaning yet ultimately condescending place – “Isn’t it great these people can make a comedy!” Both responses will attach themselves to Sameh Zoabi’s genial satire about a Palestinian soap opera writer and the Israeli security officer who tries to influence the direction of a TV show’s plot. Fitfully amusing yet unable to withstand close inspection, the movie will be a popular item in festivals and showcases, though Israeli money means Arab play is impossible.

Zoabi’s imagining of the soap, itself called “Tel Aviv on Fire,” is the film’s masterstroke, reproducing all the outrageous plot twists and visual excesses of the genre. The setting is a nostalgic spy story in the lead-up to the Six-Day War, with Manal going undercover as “Rachel” and seducing Israeli general Yehuda in order to infiltrate the enemy and report their plans back to her lover, Palestinian resistance fighter Marwan. The show is a huge success on both sides of the dividing wall, and producer Bassam (Nadim Sawalha) aims to keep it that way. He’s hired his unassertive nephew Salam (Kais Nashef) to help the actors with their Hebrew pronunciation so as not to lose the show’s significant Israeli audience, notwithstanding the plot’s clear anti-Zionist agenda.

Salam gains the favor of the soap’s star, Tala (Lubna Azabal), when he points out a linguistic error in one of her lines; puffed up by the feeling that he’s made a contribution to the show, he claims to be a writer for the series when stopped by border control on his way back home to Jerusalem from the studio in Ramallah. Security officer Assi (Yaniv Biton) is interested because his wife and her family are annoyingly addicted to what he considers anti-Israeli schlock, and he figures he can impress his spouse if he tells her what’s going to happen next. The following day Assi again stops Salam but this time he’s got an idea: make Manal/Rachel really fall in love with Yehuda and throw over Marwan. It’s not a request but an order, given that Assi can make Salam’s life hell by refusing to let him across the checkpoint.

Anyone who’s encountered the Israeli-Palestinian border crossings knows they’re subject to the whims of the guards, so Salam’s dilemma isn’t all that impossible to imagine. With Tala’s support, he’s able to get a promotion to writer for real, which he hopes will impress his ex-g.f. Mariam (Maïsa Abd Elhadi, always a welcome presence). But how will he manage to appease an increasingly interfering Assi without promoting a storyline that makes the Israelis into romantic heroes?

As with Zoabi’s debut. “Man Without a Cell Phone,” the humor is broadly situational, taking a likable if unremarkable Everyman and thrusting him into scenarios that highlight the inequality and absurdity of Palestinians’ status within Israel. As satire, “Tel Aviv on Fire” plays on two levels: One is a loving send-up of soap operas; the other aims at a more knowing commentary on the pressures of daily life, yet while pleasing, the humor has little bite. A scene of Salam driving alongside the separation wall as if he’s searching for an opening seems designed strictly for non-locals who might imagine there exists an easier way to cross (that’s a joke in itself), and the side plot involving his wooing of Mariam needs developing or at least more background. Strongly to be commended is Zoabi’s depiction of a vibrant Palestinian middle class, a sector too often forgotten in films from the region.

Venice’s Horizons jury awarded Nashif its best actor prize, and his hangdog persona awakening to ambition and the impossibility of his situation is well-played, contrasted with the deliberately more exaggerated performances of the soap stars. Zoabi’s shifts between the two worlds, real and imagined, give him the greatest scope for amusement, and he clearly has a ball with the garish lighting and showy camerawork of the TV series.

Popular on Variety

Film Review: 'Tel Aviv on Fire'

Reviewed at Venice Film Festival (Horizons), Sept. 1, 2018 (also in Toronto – Discoveries). Running time: 96 MIN.

Production: (Luxembourg-France-Israel-Belgium) A Samsa Film, TS Prods., Lama Films, Film From There, Artémis Prods., RTBF, Voo & BeTV, Shelter Prod production. (Int'l. sales: Indie Sales Company, Paris.) Producers: Bernard Michaux, Miléna Poylo, Gilles Sacuto, Amir Harel, Patrick Quinet. Co-producers: Arlette Zylberberg, Philippe Logie.

Crew: Director: Sameh Zoabi. Screenplay: Dan Kleinman, Zoabi. Camera (color): Laurent Brunet. Editor: Catherine Schwartz. Music: André Dziezuk.

With: Kais Nashef, Lubna Azabal, Yaniv Biton,Nadim Sawalha, Maïsa Abd Elhadi, Salim Daw, Yousef Sweid, Amer Hlehel, Ashraf Farah, Laëtitia Eïdo. (Arabic, Hebrew, English dialogue)

More Film

  • Lucy-Lost

    Cartoon Forum: 30th Anniversary, Little Giants and New Generations

    TOULOUSE, France –  Celebrating its 30th anniversary, Cartoon Forum wrapped Sept. 19 having showcased the ever-growing strength of European animation. 85 projects were pitched from 24 countries at the co-production forum platform that played host to north of 1,000 investors, distributors and producers – a record number. Falling on French-speaking Belgium – Wallonie-Bruxelles – whose [...]

  • Renee Zellweger Rufus Wainwright Sam Smith

    Renée Zellweger: Judy Garland Was 'My Childhood Hero'

    Awards buzz is building around Renée Zellweger for her performance as Judy Garland, emerging as a frontrunner in the Oscar race for best actress. But for her, the real prize was paying tribute to Garland, of whom she’s been a lifelong fan. “Nobody was prettier, nobody sang prettier…the adventures she had, [she was] my childhood [...]

  • Topic Studios

    Layoffs Hit Topic Studios as TV Division Relocates to West Coast (EXCLUSIVE)

    A small round of layoffs has hit Topic Studios this week in the television division, insiders familiar with the company told Variety. One of the insiders said three executives at the New York-based producer and distributor are out: senior vice president of scripted programming and Viacom alum Lisa Leingang, vice president of development Mona Panchal [...]

  • 'Downton Abbey' Music Gets 'Bigger, Better,

    As 'Downton Abbey' Hits the Silver Screen, the Music, Too, Gets 'Bigger, Better, Grander'

    When “Downton Abbey” fans hear that familiar strings-and-piano theme, a Pavlovian response ensues: Get to the television immediately, because you don’t want to miss a minute of the addictive Crawley family melodrama to follow. This week, with the “Downton Abbey” movie reaching theaters on Friday, fans can’t wait for their fix of Lady Mary and [...]

  • 45 Seconds of Laughter

    Film Review: '45 Seconds of Laughter'

    “Everyone is worth more than their worst act,” said Roman Catholic sister and anti-death penalty advocate Helen Prejean, and it’s with these words that “45 Seconds of Laughter” closes. It’s an apt sentiment on which to leave Tim Robbins’ sincerely felt documentary study of the therapeutic acting workshops run by his own theater company in [...]

  • Julie Andrews

    Julie Andrews Selected for AFI's Life Achievement Award

    The American Film Institute Board of Trustees has selected Julie Andrews as the recipient of the 48th AFI Life Achievement Award. The award will be presented to Andrews on April 25 in Los Angeles. The ceremony will be telecast on TNT. More Reviews Album Review: Samantha Fish’s ‘Kill or Be Kind’ TV Review: 'A Little [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content