With reality feeling increasingly like political satire every day, the ambitious Israeli film Tel Aviv on Fire takes a stab at the tensions between Israel and Palestine. The film by Palestinian director Sameh Zoabi functions almost like a soap opera, and indeed it revolves around a fictional soap opera TV series. With the lines blurring every day, Zoabi’s political rom-com of sorts borders on the banal and the absurd in its approach to its themes.

Thought-provoking in its efforts to tackle strained international relations through a soap opera set amid the Six-Day War and a dramatizing of Israeli occupation, the soap within the film is aimed at Palestinians but finds a strong audience amongst Israeli women. The plot follows the bumbling Salam (Kais Nashif) as he finds himself working on set on his uncle’s TV series, the aptly named “Tel Aviv on Fire.” Like a comedic mirror of the past 50 years, the film pokes fun at what were and still are never-ending and constantly changing plans to end the occupation. The show features spies, double agents and terrorist schemes, all of which mostly become subplots as the focus of the show shifts to the love story of Tala, a seductive middle-aged French actress played by the brilliant Lubna Azabal, and the troubled general Yehuda Edelman (Yousef ‘Joe’ Sweid). This challenging love affair becomes a parallel to lead screenwriter Salam’s own love affair with a former partner. Intriguingly these symbolic relationships are difficult to maintain, pursue or even begin, and they come to symbolize the difficult relationship between two nationalities coexisting in the same region in friction.

Nashif plays Salam as an endearing and clumsy man looking for a career and for love. Though Salam faces military intimidation, he makes deals with a Palestine captain to exchange hummus for story tips, with friendship serving as another politically relevant metaphor. While Salam juggles on-set egos at work, he also does so with the general’s ego and his own, as he attempts to reconcile with the past. Nashif brilliantly uses the approach of tripping haphazardly through dialogue to add believability to his depiction of a man being pulled in different directions. His performance even picked up the Best Actor award at the 75th Venice Film Festival (the Orizzonti section). Nashif’s chemistry with Yaniv Biton, the captain, and Azabal, the ambitious actress, is palpable and fundamental to both the film’s poignant comedy and its drama.

Brimming with the same soap-opera conventions it sets within its own fictional show, including low-budget production design and a cheesy sort of lighthearted score that doesn’t really add much atmosphere, the film resembles a kind of ‘80s Western soap rip-off. Successful in its portrayal of soap excess, Tel Aviv on Fire is a steady and satisfying watch, importantly illuminating the Palestinian-Israeli conflict that is too often untouched by drama. Remaining light when necessary and going deeper into the themes when allowed, the film is mostly an enjoyable dissection of a bemusing political situation.

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