In the movies, as sometimes in life, thinking with one’s loins instead of one’s brain is a recipe for fatalism, for broken families, for dead rabbits strung up in closets. Like a computer virus infecting our operating system, it overrides our better judgment.
Sarah (Sivane Kretchner), the unhappily married, upper-middle-class Israeli café owner in Muayad Alayan’s grim procession The Reports on Sarah and Saleem, should know better than to spend a public evening in the West Bank with her paramour Saleem (Adeeb Safadi), the Palestinian bread deliveryman she met on the job. Saleem is married, too — his wife is pregnant, no less — so the title characters’ affair usually commences in the unceremonious shadows of Saleem’s van, in the manner of teenagers’ backseat trysts.
Until this one time, when Saleem, having just delivered a contraband package across the Palestinian border — he’s begun making shady, no-questions-asked night deliveries for a bit of extra cash — invites Sarah for a drink in a Bethlehem bar. She visibly wrestles with the idea, her brain and sexual organs swapping uppercuts, Kretchner wordlessly conveying the struggle. Sarah is the wife of a colonel in the Israel Army, and news reports, early in the film, have indicated yet another dust-up between Israel and the Territories. Should she be seen in a West Bank drinking establishment?
Just pretend you’re a foreigner, Saleem says. It’ll be fine. “Life is not that complicated!” he exclaims, in one of the script’s few telegraphed outbursts.
Sarah caves, because it wouldn’t be a movie if she didn’t, and the rest of the picture charts the fallout of this decision. When a tussle ensues between Saleem and an overzealous barfly with eyes, and hands, fixed on Sarah, it’s the crucial domino in the plot’s inexorable progression, triggering revelations of guilt and betrayal, of false confessions and extralegal interrogations.
The sophomore feature from Palestinian director Alayan, The Reports on Sarah and Saleem is the latest of countless dramas set in this combustible region of the Middle East. It’s far from the first cinematic autopsy of the tragic threading of the personal and the political in a divided Jerusalem. Alayan knows the region enough that the specifics of his narrative ring true — as when Saleem, who has concocted a story of recruiting Sarah to a jihadist movement as a way to justify their rendezvous to Palestinian authorities, is later captured by the Israelis for this very lie, and becomes a cause célèbre for the West Bank’s extremist community.
But it’s the universality of the story that has led to the film’s wide acceptance on the international stage. I thought more than once of Harold Pinter’s stark plays about relationships untethered, and about the rich history of libidinous American crime thrillers. If Sarah, equivocal but ultimately self-serving, doesn’t fit the textbook image of a femme fatale, her affair with Saleem has the cosmic tinge of a film-noir dalliance, where forbidden pleasures build only toward bleakness.
The theme of love, or at least lust, thwarted by structural schisms has a deeper provenance; instead of the warring sides of Israel and Palestine, think of the Capulets and Montagues, the Sharks and the Jets, the mafia and the corrupt police force — any situation where the rot has spread to both factions.
We can free-associate like this, in part, because The Reports on Sarah and Saleem jettisons a musical score entirely, letting its most sobering developments shock us unimpeded, and without any melodramatic cues to tell us what to think.
Alayan is a generous writer-director driven not by an agenda but by a compassionate curiosity, and an abiding sympathy toward the story’s corroded players as well as its pure innocents. He leaves his characters, and us, with an uncertain future. It may not be what every audience will want after sitting through two tense hours, but it’s life.
THE REPORTS ON SARAH AND SALEEM. Director: Muayad Alayan; Cast: Sivane Kretchner, Adeeb Safadi, Ishai Golan, Maisa Abd Elhadi; in English, Arabic and Hebrew; Distributor: DADA Films; Not rated; Now playing at Movies of Lake Worth, Movies of Delray, Regal Shadowood and Living Room Theaters in Boca Raton, the Classic Gateway Theater in Fort Lauderdale, and Coral Gables Art Cinema