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The Reports on Sarah and Saleem **1/2

A steamy fling between an Israeli café owner and a Palestinian delivery driver snowballs into a legal maelstrom on both sides of the wall in this gripping procedural inspired by a real case. It runs out of juice near the end, but it's held afloat by strong characters and a topical urgency. 

Is it worth $10? Yes 

She gets into his work van in desolate parking lots, and for a few minutes, they enjoy each other's company. Then they go their separate ways, she to her Israeli Army officer husband and playful daughter, he to his pregnant wife and to the judgmental eyes of her in-laws. And it works like clockwork, until it doesn't.

Actually, that's an understatement. It spirals into disaster.

In the pressure-cooker world of “The Reports on Sarah and Saleem,” the pleasures of the flesh are fleeting and short-lived, and they give way to devastating consequences for everyone involved. An adulterous dalliance is the kickoff point for this Palestinian production that takes a clear-eyed, just-the-facts-ma'am approach to a criminal case inspired by true events. Until it stalls at the eleventh hour, this domestic drama, heightened by the pull of a political thriller, hurtles forward like a freight train.

It begins as if you'd missed the first five minutes, a work in perpetual motion where the endless cycle of work shifts, money troubles and simmering resentments ensnare viewers in director Muayad Alayan's viselike grip. Sarah (Sivan Kerchner), who is trying to get her new café off the ground, is dismayed by the prospect of starting from scratch again after her husband (Ishai Golan), a deceptively mellow Israeli Army colonel, announces he might be moved to a new post. Meanwhile, Saleem (the smoldering Adeeb Safadi), the Palestinian delivery driver who drops off baked goods at Sarah's business, is grappling with an impasse in his marriage to Bisan (Maisa Abd Elhadi), a university student, homemaker and expecting mother. His hair-trigger temper, however, is making it tough to deal with Bisan's meddlesome family, especially when his brother-in-law Mahmood (Mohammad Eid) insists on helping pay the bills.

So Sarah and Saleem seek temporary solace from their stifling doldrums in each other's arms. Sure, they tell themselves, it doesn't mean anything, but the way their combustible personalities translate into  dynamite sex suggests there's something there, hard as they might try to deny it. Then Sarah agrees to tag along for a late delivery in East Jerusalem. “Just speak English and you'll be okay,” Saleem advises his paramour. But the act doesn't fool the guy who tries to pick her up at a bar and runs into Saleem's fist.

Retribution is a strong theme coursing through “The Reports on Sarah and Saleem,” as actions bring a truckload of ripple effects. Don't be deterred by the awkward and cumbersome title. Alayan packs the narrative with incident in a way that the breathing spaces work as setups for the next step in the story. The strategy works like gangbusters, especially when Saleem ends up being taken in by Palestinian authorities for questioning and finds himself indebted to Abu Ibrahim (the charismatic Kamel El Basha), a revered public figure with ties to less-than-legal activities. Abu is the kind of problem fixer who puts everyone through the wringer, especially those he's defending. El Basha is only in one scene, but man, does he leave an impression.

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As the film segues from marital infidelity chronicle to police procedural, however, the narrative momentum stops feeling kinetic and starts feeling oppressive. It becomes a succession of tightly coiled confrontations and intimidating legal wrangling. Sarah and Saleem's home lives, for instance, never quite feel lived-in, even as their characters, both together and apart, are vividly etched by Kerchner and Safadi, but the characters, and their earthy bond, end up getting lost in the East Jerusalem/West Jerusalem shuffle.

And that's what keeps bogging down “Sarah and Saleem.” For all its salacious plot details, it never quite feels personal. The lovers' carnal heat amounts to a cog in the screenplay's wheels. Also, for a film that purports to regard its characters in nonjudgmental terms, it spends an awful lot of screen time showing Sarah as reckless and irresponsible, especially when Bisan starts taking on a more prominent role. An unfortunate madonna/whore parallel is established. Elhadi does rise to the challenge, delivering a layered portrait of a devoted wife going the extra distance to get to the bottom of her husband's troubles with the law. She remains a compelling screen presence, even as the film keeps trying to flatten her into woman-scorned scenarios.

But credit Alayan for refusing to depict Bisan as a victim, even when he stages his characters' reproaches in ways that teeter on the brink of telenovela obviousness. His movie tires you out with its fastidious adherence to its chain-link structure, but not before he delivers an absorbing foray into centuries-old conflicts, set to the rhythm of a contemporary news cycle. Its stongest asset? It allows its characters the freedom to make mistakes, then lets redemption and forgiveness lead the way.

Photos courtesy of DADA Films

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