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Certain phrases, when uttered early on in a film, clearly telegraph the film’s subsequent events—forcing a collective groan from the audience. “Trust me, everything will be fine” fits the bill, as does the infamous “I’ll be right back.” Rarely is such dialogue as on the nose as the phrase heard early in The Reports on Sarah and Saleem, a mostly compelling, occasionally draining political drama from Palestine. “Life is not that complicated,” one character tells another. You can be sure it’s about to get more complicated.
Saleem (Adeeb Safadi) directs that ominous line at his lover Sarah (Sivane Kretchner). She’s Israeli. He’s Palestinian. Both are married to other people, and on this particular evening, their tryst is happening in the Palestinian village of Bethlehem. Not complicated at all. He convinces her to go get a drink together in public, where an altercation with a random, drunken patron starts a chain reaction that leads to a dramatic unraveling of their lives. The patron reports Saleem to the Palestinian authorities for transporting an Israeli prostitute across the border, and soon each character is faced with difficult choices, torn between protecting each other or themselves.
Many films have charted how a marital transgression can ripple outward, but director Muayad Alayan, working from his brother Rami Musa Alayan’s script, crafts a rich set of details that are both relatable to Western audiences but also deeply specific to modern-day Jerusalem. Economic desperation drives Saleem to take a job delivering packages to Palestinians who cannot travel across the border. Meanwhile, Sarah has opened a cafe, and her husband’s military career threatens her burgeoning success, which may force them to move out of the city. These details, along with superb acting by the two leads, provide a richness of character that ensures we never see Sarah or Saleem as mere political icons. They are real, earthbound adults with relatable flaws, something that Hollywood films have all but abandoned.
Strong character work carries the film through its overdone middle section, in which each plot turn seems to diminish in impact. The Reports on Sarah and Saleem is tightly plotted. Every decision Sarah and Saleem make to save themselves, most involving testimony given in poorly lit offices, ends up harming them. The betrayals cut deeper with every turn, but at some point they lose their power. At an unnecessarily long 130 minutes, Alayan could have easily cut out a couple of plot points without too much disruption. The result would have been a powerful cascade of brutal developments, instead of a bureaucratic nightmare that becomes less scary the longer it lasts.
Still, it’s a confident and promising work from a young director, who manages to sidestep the inherent dangers of his subject matter. The Reports on Sarah and Saleem easily passes the test we unconsciously apply to films about the Israel-Palestine crisis: It succeeds so well as human drama that you stop trying to parse it for its political meaning.
The Reports on Sarah and Saleem opens Friday at Landmark E Street Cinema.