In the city of Nazareth, Palestian neighbors engage each other in battles over garbage disposal and parking. In Jerusalem, Elia Suleiman meets his Palestinian lover from Ramallah at an Israeli checkpoint when they're not both having fantastical confrontations with Israelis in "Divine Intervention."
Elia Suleiman subtitles his film "A Chronicle of Love and Pain" and he shows a real knack for getting to the human foibles upon which great political turmoil are built. Mixing visually comic, often silent, set pieces with action fantasy and melancholy reflection, Suleiman presents the Israeli/Palestian border as the ground zero of absurdist human tragi-comedy.
That's ironic considering the absurdist treatment of Suleiman's film by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, which refused to consider "Divine Intervention" as Palestine's submission for Foreign Language film because the UN doesn't recognize Palestine as a country, yet the Academy accepts submissions from Hong Kong, which, the last I checked, was not a country at all.
Suleiman is rightly compared to French director Jacques Tati, who also used visual patterns and sound effects in his largely silent comedies. In Bethlehem, a young boy kicks a soccer ball. Two old men, their heads reflecting the shape of the ball, sit on a rooftop like "Sesame Street's" balcony geezers watching as the ball pops into and out of their line of sight before landing on the rooftop across the street. Another old man walks out, deflates the ball with a knife, and hurls it back into the street.
Suleiman's lover, a fashion plate in pastel pink, boldly parades through an Israeli checkpoint, its guards thrown into confusion as their watchtower topples from her strength. She later appears as an invincible Palestian ninja, haloed with bullets at an Israeli shooting range. Suleiman returns to the checkpoint again and again, most comically when he sets of a balloon featuring the face of Arafat which gains unlawful entry and floats over the city aping the French film "The Red Balloon."
Suleiman, who never changes his hangdog expression throughout his film, also faces the loss of his father, a man introduced vibrantly greeting neighbors from his car while branding them with vile epithets. A quiet scene in a hospital room is beautifully lit, framing the two men against inky darkness. When he dies, the son is left sitting alone with his mother, contemplating the pressure cooker simmering on their stove.
"Divine Intervention" is both hilarious and thought-provoking. If only dying of laughter was the curse of the human race.
Santa Claus, with a knife sticking out of his chest and his presents scattering down a hill, is pursued by a gang of rock-wielding teens. A youthful soccer player accidentally kicks his ball onto a neighbor's rooftop terrace the owner takes out a large knife, stabs the ball and tosses the now-lifeless orb back to the boy. A man takes his neatly wrapped trash and tosses it into the garden of his neighbor who he calls "shameful" when she tosses it back into his yard. A balloon bearing the cartoon image of Yassir Arafat floats over an Israeli checkpoint and the confused soldiers phone in to headquarters for permission to shot down the floating offender. These are just some of the images and action that Palestinian filmmaker Elia Suleiman brings to the screen in his whimsical and poignant feature film, "Divine Intervention."
Helmer/scribe Suleiman brings his political views to the fore with his second feature film, "Divine Intervention." The film is in three parts. Part one takes place in predominantly Palestinian Nazareth and focuses, mainly, on the day-to-day interaction within the Palestinian community. The main character is the father of E.S. (helmer Suleiman), a filmmaker living in Jerusalem, and the old curmudgeon (Nayef Fahoum Daher) has a bitter attitude about people, without regard to religion or politics - he dislikes everyone equally. When the old man falls ill, E.S. must, reluctantly, make the journey to visit and care for his father. During this portion we meet all kinds of people in all shapes and sizes, most of who are in one kind of feud or another with his neighbors. This part is the most mirthful and often brings a smile with its vignettes of absurdist whimsy - with definite political and religious points nicely made by the filmmaker.
Part 2 moves to an Israeli checkpoint between a Jewish sector of Jerusalem and the neighboring Palestinian section of Ramallah. The day-in, day-out routine, mostly boring though sometimes tense, of the soldiers manning the station is observed from the parking lot by E.S. and his Palestinian lover called, only, the woman (Manal Khader). One lives on the Jewish side and the other on the Palestinian, and the lot is the only place the star-crosses couple can meet. They are both spectators and, because of the forced separation, participants in the drama of modern day Israel. This is the meatiest part of "Divine Intervention" and has the strongest political statement that is both radical and thoughtful.
The last part is, essentially, a political statement that looks an awful lot like an MTV video with guns. A squad of strapping Israeli soldiers trains on the shooting range. Their targets are all the same: the image a kaffiyeh-shrouded woman wielding a knife. As the troopers blast away at their "enemy," in a choreographed sequence that would make Lars Von Triers proud (think "Dancer in the Dark") the woman (Khader, again) materializes, dodging and juggling the bullets fired at her as she smites those who would want to vanquish her. It's a stunning combination of startling images, nicely done choreography, special F/X, Middle Eastern music and a strong political statement on Palestine.
Overall, Elia Suleiman has composed the film like a classical piece of music. It is a series of three movements, starting light and whimsical then moving to more serious issues and on to a big, flashy finale. He does this (except in the music vid finish) using a series of vignettes that culminate in an extended sequence with the red balloon floating over the holy city to settle, finally, on the Al Aska mosque on the Temple Mount - a metaphor for the rights of the Palestinians to self-rule and self-destiny. This is powerful stuff wrapped in a package that is geared for both sheer enjoyment and as food for thought. Visually, Suleiman uses static cameras, mostly in crisply focused long shots to force the eye to pay attention - there is often much happening but you need to pay attention to appreciate the subtlety of the filmmaker. Closer up shots are used when necessary, as when "the woman" struts, regally, straight through the checkpoint as if it and its guards were not even there as the soldiers stare, gape-jawed and helpless, at the beauty.
Don't expect a conventional linear story or plot in "Divine Intervention." It is more like a rapid-fire series of comments and observations about the life of Palestinians in Israel today. It does not preach and uses humor to educate. Elia Suleiman is an international filmmaking talent to watch. His style reminds me, strongly, of Jacques Tati, using the eye more than the ear to tell his story. The light whimsy of Part 1 opens the mind to be susceptible for the more poignant second part. And, you get a cool video, too. I give it an A-.
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