Director Elia_Suleiman uses a mixture of romantic comedy and quirky humor to shed light on the problems of Palestinians in Yadon Ilaheyya (Divine Intervention). E.S. (Suleiman and his girlfriend Manal_Khader), because they live in separate cities, must meet near an Israeli checkpoint. The film is little more than a series of usually comic but occasionally poignant scenes in which Suleiman and others must confront any number of Israeli nemeses. Suleiman’s second film, Divine Interventions, was screened in competition at the 2002 Cannes Film Festival.
— Perry Seibert, Rovi
A Tangle of Middle Eastern Hate and Love
Elia Suleiman’s new film, “Divine Intervention,” which will be shown today and tomorrow at the New York Film Festival, is subtitled “a chronicle of love and pain.” This is accurate enough; Mr. Suleiman does touch upon a son’s grief after his father’s death, and on the wordless longing of two lovers. But the description is also a little misleading: those large emotions — and a smoldering political anger about Palestinian life under Israeli occupation, as well — are refracted through a series of quick, mordant vignettes, some of which are like cinematic riddles and visual puns, delivered in elegant deadpan.
The film feels less like a chronicle than a loose shuffle of moments and ideas, like the cryptic Post-it messages that paper the walls of the hero’s apartment. Indeed, since the hero, a Palestinian, is named E. S., and is played (in utter silence and with Keatonesque melancholy) by Mr. Suleiman, it may be that those walls are his storyboard, the ever-changing outline of the fractured meditations unfolding before us.
But the appearance of randomness — of one curious, awkward thing after another — is itself misleading, for there is an oblique, elegant sense of structure here. The interlocking series of setups, punch lines and non sequiturs add up to something touching, provocative and wonderfully strange.
“Divine Intervention” is divided into three sections, each devoted to a spot on the troubled map of Israel and the Palestinian territories and linked by the hero’s suffering and the director’s cool, observant camera.
In the first scene, a man playing E. S.’s father (Nayef Fahoum Daher) drives through Nazareth, a mostly Arab Israeli city, greeting his neighbors with a wave and a smile as he curses them under his breath. Though the father’s house, like those around it, is handsome and tidy, it’s in a very bad neighborhood, in the sense that the neighbors treat one another very badly. An old man in a tank-top sabotages the driveway adjacent to his home, and then collects bottles on the roof to throw at the police when they come to intervene. (He also stabs an errant soccer ball with a kitchen knife.)
Nazarene social relations are perhaps best summed up in the following exchange. “Neighbor, why do you throw your garbage into my yard? Aren’t you ashamed?”
“But neighbor, the garbage we throw in your yard is the same garbage you throw in our garden.”
“But it’s still shameful. You should have spoken to me about it. Neighbors should respect each other.”
It is hard not to read a political subtext into these words; there may be a religious one as well (what would Jesus do?). And as the film’s attention shifts from the father (who collapses on his kitchen floor and is taken to the hospital) to the son, its politics become more explicit. The first time we see him, E. S. is behind the wheel of his car, eating an apricot. When he is finished, he tosses the pit out the window, and an Israeli tank by the side of the road bursts into flames. E. S., who lives in Jerusalem, meets his lover (identified only as “the woman” and played by the crushingly beautiful Manal Khader), who is from Ramallah, in an empty lot near an Israeli checkpoint on the road between their two cities. There they hold hands and watch sorrowfully as the young, anxious Israeli soldiers go about their work, which unfolds in another series of self-contained sight gags.
The film’s humor becomes more barbed and confrontational, and Mr. Suleiman twice departs from his classical, silent-movie discipline to conjure up digitally assisted fantasies of symbolic vengeance. In the first, E. S. releases a red balloon imprinted with a cartoon likeness of Yasir Arafat into the air. As it floats over their guard tower and toward the monuments of Jerusalem, the soldiers squabble over whether to shoot it down immediately or await instructions from higher up. The image of Mr. Arafat’s smiling face settling over Al Aksa mosque on the Temple Mount is, perhaps now even more than when it was filmed, piquant, ambiguous and unsettling.
The same can be said of a phantasmagorical scene of musical combat known as the “Palestinian ninja sequence,” which is likely, and was perhaps intended, to appall as well as amuse. In it the woman, who has vanished from E. S.’s life, returns to take on a group of soldiers who have been using her kaffiyeh-shrouded image as a target on a firing range.
The battle, choreographed to resemble an over-the-top martial-arts music video, carries the chill of real-world violence, but whether you choose to be offended or entertained, it is impossible not to marvel at Mr. Suleiman’s knack for turning rage and hopelessness into burlesque. His wry, ultimately humane fatalism suggests that Palestinians and Jews are, in some respects, not so far apart. “Divine Intervention” made me think of an old bit of Yiddish metaphysics: man tracht, Gott lacht — man strives, and God laughs.
Mr. Suleiman’s film is paired with “We Wuz Robbed,” a 10-minute black-and-white documentary directed by Spike Lee. “Divine Intervention” can make you laugh at the current situation in the Middle East without feeling much better about it, and for its part Mr. Lee’s briskly edited recollection of Election Day 2000 and its aftermath is swift, funny and depressing. Granted, the film may not be dispiriting to those who backed the current president in that still-controverted contest, and Mr. Lee makes no pretense of balance, interviewing high-ranking members of the Gore campaign, who take us through the very long night of Nov. 7 and its endless morning after. But it is hard to watch “We Wuz Robbed” without reliving some of the stomach-churning vertigo of those days, and remembering — just in time, perhaps, for the next election — how fragile democracy can be.
— By A. O. SCOTT (New York Times)
Published: October 7, 2002
An interview with the Director (in English with hardcoded French subtitles and Greek soft subs)
Language(s):Arabic, Hebrew, English
Subtitles:English, French, Spanish, Portuguese, Greek (muxed), English (srt)