Starring Kais Nashif. In Arabic and Hebrew, with English subtitles. Rated PG
For everyone who views the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians as a kind of long-running soap opera—by turns tedious and infuriating—Tel Aviv on Fire comes as a validation of sorts. Fortunately, it adds solid comedy to the dynamic, aided by terrific actors familiar from all types of international productions.
This hugely entertaining item’s title is also the name of a daytime soap being shot in the occupied West Bank, and the no-budget TV series tweaks both sides by setting its schlocky story just before the 1967 Arab-Israeli War. Most of the new show’s money has gone to hiring a sexy French star (Belgian-born Lubna Azabal, from the Oscar-nominated Incendies) to play a Palestinian spy wresting secrets from an Israeli general (American Assassin’s Yousef “Joe” Sweid).
Tel Aviv’s top producer is a highly respected elder (Anglo-Jordanian veteran Nadim Sawalha, the real-life father of Absolutely Fabulous’s Julia Sawalha), and that’s the only reason his ne’er-do-well bilingual nephew has a job there, ostensibly to help with the Hebrew pronunciation. Bushy-haired Salam (Kais Nashif, who had much grimmer roles in Tora Bora and Paradise Now) is an affable Kramer type whose big ideas usually come to naught because of poor follow-through.
When an on-set fluke nets him a small promotion, he sees a chance to get in good with the pretty neighbour (Maisa Abd Elhadi) he previously blew it with. Then, when a bad checkpoint encounter forces him to explain himself to an arrogant Israeli officer (Yaniv Biton) whose wife loves the series, he pads his résumé even further. Like everyone else, the captain really wants to write; soon he’s forcing ideas on Salam and checking in to see if he delivers. Suddenly, our lanky layabout has multiple reasons to work hard and sell his talents. The problem is that politics—religious, historical, sexual, and even epicurean—keep pulling him in competing directions, some of which will never be funny.
Sharp-witted writer-director Sameh Zoabi has to balance the same conflicts. And even if the tonal elements get away from him here and there, that fits with the mess he’s satirizing. In the end, though—as several paycheque-happy participants attest—it’s less important to tell a story perfectly than to make sure your show doesn’t get cancelled.