When an Israeli woman confides in a co-worker about her recent affair with a Palestinian man, this is the reaction she gets in “The Reports on Sarah and Saleem,” a gripping new thriller by Palestinian filmmaker Muayad Alayan: “There are millions of Jewish guys you could have chosen. Are you that desperate? With an Arab?”
Her friend’s surprise — and unsurprising disapproval — reflects the apparent rarity and taboo of such a relationship, and yet the movie opens with the words “Inspired by true events.”
Alayan’s second feature — written, like his 2015 film “Love, Theft and Other Entanglements,” by his brother Rami Alayan — tells the story of Sarah (Sivane Kretchner), a Jewish Israeli who owns a cafe in West Jerusalem, and Saleem (Adeeb Safadi), a Muslim Palestinian from East Jerusalem, who delivers baked goods to her restaurant.
Though married to other people and separated by the city’s gaping ethnic, religious and economic fault lines, the two are soon engaged in a casual affair, mainly consisting of steamy, late-night sex in the back of Saleem’s van.
But what begins as a mere dalliance — one that ought to be of little consequence to anyone besides the lovers and their families — ends up taking on geopolitical dimensions when a series of events brings their uncommon liaison to the attention of both the Israeli and Palestinian security and intelligence services, whose agents suspect nefarious intentions.
The tense second half of the film explores the weighty personal and political repercussions of the pair’s fling, forming the most compelling sections of its dramatic arc. Sarah and Saleem become the subjects of an absurd and widening legal investigation — which, in the latter’s case, amounts to an often brutal process of interrogation — with consequences that could include prison time.
Also caught up by the turmoil are their unwitting spouses. Sarah’s somewhat peevish husband, David (Ishai Golan), with whom she has a young daughter, has recently been promoted to colonel in the Israeli army, with a prominent career at stake. Saleem’s wife, Bisan (Maisa Abd Elhadi), who is pregnant with their first child, navigates between confining cultural expectations and her own increasingly assertive self-advocacy.
The story is presented in an unambiguous, naturalistic fashion, with little in the way of music or other atmosphere, aside from frequent panoramic shots of Jerusalem that evoke the city’s complicated dynamics (including such landmarks as the Dome of the Rock).
Alayan’s presentation of both Sarah and Saleem — and their respective communities — is commendably balanced and empathetic. What’s more, Sarah and Bisan are depicted as strong, feminist characters who must make difficult choices in the face of societal constraints. (A female public defender also plays a pivotal role.)
In just a few places, the direction veers toward the heavy-handed. Near the end, for example, the character of David goes off the rails a bit, becoming a stereotypical villain, in an unsubtle parallel with the Israeli institution he represents. A couple of other details — including character development and the sociopolitical environment of the film — also stretch credulity.
At its heart, though, this is a film about human nature: about desire, recklessness and emotions. The fraught relationship between Israelis and Palestinians is this tale’s powerful overlay. But it’s the questions it raises about personal accountability that speak to wider truths.
Unrated. At Landmark’s E Street Cinema. Contains sex, nudity and some scenes of violence. In Hebrew, Arabic and English with subtitles. 127 minutes.