Animosity runs deep and suspicion warps reasoning in culturally and politically divided Jerusalem, the setting of the suspenseful and observant “The Reports on Sarah and Saleem” (opening this week at the Opera Plaza) from Palestinian director Muayad Alayan.
Written by Rami Alayan (the director’s brother), the film is a political thriller, a social drama about Israeli-Palestinian relations, and a domestic melodrama somewhat like Asghar Farhadi’s “A Separation.”
Like Farhadi’s films, it centers on a private matter — in this case, an extramarital affair — that has extensive dramatic consequences for numerous characters, often people occupying different strata in an unequal society.
Sarah (Sivane Kretchner) is a middle-class Israeli who owns a cafe and lives with her work-absorbed army-colonel husband, David (Ishai Golan), and their young daughter in West Jerusalem.
Saleem (Adeeb Safadi) is a financially struggling Palestinian who delivers bread to Sarah’s cafe and lives with his pregnant wife, Basan (Maisa Abd Elhadi), in East Jerusalem.
Sarah and Saleem regularly meet for stress-relief sex, often in Saleem’s van.
The personal becomes the political when Sarah accompanies Saleem to the West Bank on one of the vaguely defined night deliveries he makes for his brother-in-law (Mohammad Eid) to earn extra cash. At a bar, Saleem and a local man fight over Sarah. The incident prompts false accusations of criminal activity against both lovers.
Lies concocted to mask their marital infidelities backfire, resulting in more lies, misinterpretations, betrayals, violent interrogations and charges of espionage.
Further complications arise, some brutal, when Sarah’s and Saleem’s spouses become aware of the affair.
Alayan doesn’t always smoothly navigate the movie’s complicated plot, which starts in the middle, backs up and twists and thickens throughout.
The film lacks the texture and depth of Asghar Fahradi’s dramas and hits less hard than Ziad Doueiri’s “The Insult” or “The Attack” when depicting the human consequences of oppression and the tenuousness of even seemingly solid Palestinian-Israeli connections.
It contains inelegant cross-cutting and marital soap-operatics. We get little sense of the emotional needs at the heart of Sarah and Saleem’s risky affair.
But the movie resonantly conveys the tensions that pervade its setting and the mistrust inherent in what appears to be virtually every cross-cultural interaction. Alayan vividly depicts a corrupt system in which men like David abuse their power and use intimidation and violence to maintain inequality.
Palestinian authorities are no picnic, either, in the film, which is far from a one-sided affair.
The film also stands out as a Middle Eastern paranoid political thriller.
When Sarah travels with Saleem to the West Bank, which is like another planet to her, we feel her unease when she accidentally gets locked out of the van.
The cast, consisting of Israeli and Arab actors, is top rate.
Jerusalem, meanwhile, almost deserves a cast-list credit for the character, both age-old and modern, it supplies.
The Reports on Saleem and Sarah
Starring: Sivane Kretchner, Adeeb Safadi, Ishai Golan, Maisa Abd Elhadi
Written by: Rami Alayan
Directed by: Muayad Alayan
Running time: 2 hours, 7 minutes