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When it’s concerned with the most trying of lives in the most troubled of regions, it can feel petty to complain that a tragic-minded romantic thriller is laying things on too thick. Out in the Dark is the story of a closeted gay Palestinian man who falls in love with a Tel Aviv lawyer the same week or so that his—the Palestinian’s—brother is stockpiling guns and murdering another gay Palestinian who crossed the border for the chance to be himself. And all that’s before Israeli security forces gets involved.
The movie is involving, the romance affecting, the sex sound, and the catch-as-catch-can handheld camerawork smartly appropriate for the scenario—the film opens on Nimr (Nicholas Jacob), the Palestinian, skulking in and out of shadows just across from the Ramallah–Tel Aviv border, en route to an Israeli nightclub with a drag show, the last place his family would want him to go. It’s a suspenseful and literal evocation of the film’s title.
Nimr meets Roy (Michael Aloni), an Israeli lawyer. The two gently flirt, at a bar and then on a stoop outside, and the easy warmth that glows between them is more than enough to power the rest of the film. A couple guys pass by and mutter something about “faggots”; Roy and Nimr, both fit, then do what movie outcasts never manage in the first reel—they chase after and triumph over their tormenters.
The drama of those first 20 minutes is potent enough without the later pile-on of killings, terror plots, and police chases. Here is a compelling tale of potential love that is already something of an international incident—you think it’s easy for a young Palestinian to cross into Israel? Grad student Nimr is allowed in one night a week, for a class. Once they fall for each other, in bracingly intimate scenes, Nimr and Roy meet with an Israeli lawyer who specializes in helping gay Palestinians avoid being sent back. There’s no easy solution, and Nimr bristles at the attempts. In his hometown, he has to keep his sexuality secret; in Tel Aviv, it’s mostly accepted, but that’s little comfort when Roy’s parents see that their son has invited a Palestinian home for Shabbat dinner. This is rich, moving material.
All this builds to a desperate climax that suggests the doomed, divided-world machinations of Cold War love stories. The ending works, but director Michael Mayer can’t smooth out the introduction of the overbearing complications—the terrorist brother, the threats from Israeli security. At first, before the narrative momentum and Nimr’s raw-eyed heartache can take over again, each new element feels willed, too perfectly coincidental, a bit of melodrama less shrewdly judged than the romance itself. The movies peaks with a scene of tender, well-cut love chat in a swimming pool, the men (and the audience) soaking in their own charisma. The talk turns to their plight, to why they’re able to see each other as lovers rather than as unknowable Others. “A dick’s a dick,” Nimr laughs, but that’s the answer the heartless forces of their two separate worlds would expect. Sometimes messily, sometimes tenderly, the movie demonstrates it’s much more than that.