Divine Intervention, the provocative second feature by the talented Palestinian filmmaker Elia Suleiman, might equally have been called Human Frustration. This comedy of hanging out desperately wants to make something happen but despairs that anything ever will.
The movie opens with the ridiculous image of a wounded Santa Claus chased by a band of boys through the scrubby hills outside Suleiman’s (and Jesus’) hometown, Nazareth, the largest Arab-majority city within Israel’s 1948 borders. So much for the Christmas spirit. Conceived in the warily optimistic aftermath of the Oslo accords, Suleiman’s first feature was titled Chronicle of a Disappearance and concerned his own dislocated return to Israel after a dozen years in New York. Divine Intervention, an extension of the earlier film but far less ruefully serene, is subtitled A Chronicle of Love and Pain. The love is very specific (for the main character’s father rather than his nonexistent fatherland); the pain, generalized.
Suleiman’s Nazareth remains a place of pervasive entropy, a low-grade pressure cooker, albeit even more riven by petty hatreds and sullen feuds. The protagonist’s father (Nayef Falhoum Daher) drives through his neighborhood, smiling at its denizens and venting his spleen from the safety of his car. The residents casually toss their garbage over each other’s walls or savagely attack the soccer ball that some kid has inadvertently kicked into their property. The more docile wait for a bus that never runs. You might say that the ghetto attitudes of these uncivil neighbors make manifest the absence of a Palestinian civil society.
Like Chronicle of a Disappearance, Divine Intervention has no narrative. Events, sometimes reduced to gags, unfold as a distanced series of bada-boom sketches and vaudeville turns. (Suleiman’s recurring riffs and situations recall the structural comedies made by James Benning in the 1970s.) The emptied-out mise-en-scène and precise compositions, usually framed by a static camera in middle-shot, create a theater of absurdity. There is frequent emphasis on off-screen action, and as befits his solemn slapstick, Suleiman makes deliberate use of sound. His adroit timing complements a musical notion of structure. Because the deadpan director appears as himself, his movies have elements of psychodrama, as well as silent comedy.
Suleiman, credited as the character E.S., is not present in the movie’s first section. He arrives on the scene, immediately after his father falls ill, and is seen driving from Jerusalem to Nazareth. Finishing an apricot, E.S. tosses the pit out the car window and continues on as it blows up an Israeli tank. (This scene, and others like it, had to be shot in France.) The gag might be taken as a form of nonviolent resistance, passive aggression, or ulcer medication. Things are less funny when E.S. is halted at the Al-Ram checkpoint between Jerusalem and Ramallah. Here crazed Israeli soldiers—uniformly played by veterans of the Israeli Defense Forces who have experience as border guards—brandish their automatic weapons and reroute the traffic. They cannot, however, stop the sexy young woman (Manal Khader), who is E.S.’s dream girl or perhaps his guardian angel, from boldly sashaying across. She checks their guns with a glance. Then their command post collapses behind her.
In contrast to such brutish military clods, E.S. appears as a sensitively ineffective intellectual. He never speaks but he’s always watching. Continuing to meet at Al-Ram, sad-eyed E.S. and his grave, comely angel sit together in a car, holding hands, and silently observing the overwrought border guards capriciously fuck with Arab traffic, confiscating goods and bellowing “Am Yisrael Chai.” The angel is virtually the only woman in the movie and she too is waiting for something to happen. The most E.S. does to amuse her is to inflate a pink balloon with the ludicrous image of a smiling Yasir Arafat and send it floating over the checkpoint into Jerusalem, where it perches on the Dome of the Rock. Then she leaves him.
A movie of long, expressive silences, Divine Intervention articulates things that have never been articulated, at least on the screen. Haunted by terror, Suleiman uses artifacts to speak for him. Stopped next to an Israeli Jew at a traffic light, E.S. dons his shades and plays an Arabized version of “I Put a Spell on You.” (As the song is sung in English, you have to wonder who will get the joke.) The most extreme voodoo has the IDF practicing their marksmanship, as if rehearsing for A Chorus Line. The target is an image of the angel. Abruptly, she comes to life, rises whirling into the air, makes a halo of their bullets, and protected by a shield in the shape of a unified Palestine, turns unstoppable ninja—a David to their collective Goliath who turns their weapons back on them and ultimately blows up an Israeli chopper. Divine Intervention was made before the Al Aqsa brigade began recruiting teenage girls as suicide bombers, but the fantasy is there—even in the mind of a fellow as charming, civilized, and rational as Elia Suleiman.
Divine Intervention was warmly received last May at Cannes, where more than one critic remarked upon the irony that Suleiman’s absurd comedy was the most “Jewish” movie in the competition. A sense of waiting for redemption notwithstanding, Divine Intervention strikes me as more generically Eastern European. It requires no stretch of the imagination to transpose its specifics to the prison house of nations that was czarist Russia. But while Suleiman’s Nazareth has certain affinities to the corrosive shtetl satire of a Mendele Mokher Sforim and he has compared himself to Woody Allen’s Zelig, his E.S. is closer to the “superfluous” men of 19th-century Russian literature—politically alienated by virtue of his intelligence, yet compelled by historical circumstance to take political life, including fanaticism and terror, into account.
Suleiman is a self-identified Palestinian but he appears neither nationalist nor Marxist. He may have been raised a Christian but he is hardly fundamentalist. He’s a man of reason. What is more superfluous than Suleiman’s daydreams of vengeance in a country where they are daily enacted? Except insofar as this elegant farce reflects a deep human tragedy, the title Divine Intervention may not even be ironic.
This week at Film Forum, one can find the two preeminent “others” of those reasonable Israeli Jews who might identify with Suleiman. The Settlers, by Ruth Walk, pays a visit to the handful of religious zealots who, protected by the Israeli army, have settled amid some 100,000 Arabs in the West Bank town of Hebron—a biblical site with a sorry history of 20th-century bloodshed. Arabs slaughtered 67 Jews in Hebron in 1929 and drove the rest from the town; some 65 years later, Brooklyn-born doctor Baruch Goldstein massacred 29 Muslims at prayer. It’s suggestive of the settlers’ mind-set that when Walk, who shot as well as directed the documentary, first interviews one youngish mother of 12, her subject matter-of-factly refers to Goldstein’s “murder.” Forget his victims—or even the fact that his evil deed perhaps intentionally precipitated the first major instance of terrorism to follow the Oslo accords. Arabs are understood, literally, as a blot upon the God-given landscape.
Walk hangs out with the smiling settler women (only one man deigns to address her) in their spotless prefab dwellings, accompanying them and their children to afternoon music and drawing classes and a rally against a new market planned for Hebron’s sacred center. It’s the same madness as Elia Suleiman’s border crossing. The lyrics to the music played are an anthem to the power of irrational certainty: “We’re here, we’re here—the land is ours for ever and ever.” Good for us, bad for you. The other side of the coin, Ram Loevy’s Close, Closed, Closure, tours Gaza, another eternal flash point that is currently “a prison with 1 million inmates.”
Loevy, who made this documentary with an Israeli and Palestinian crew, supplies a self-conscious voice-over. Is his movie superfluous? Loevy shows the vagaries of the border crossing, the incongruously suburban settlements, an Israeli-owned industrial zone, and mainly a family whose child lost his legs because he was denied timely admittance to a hospital across the green line in Israel. The mother cannot contain her bitter resentment, unleashing a torrent in which, among other things, she demands to know why all Israelis have become right-wing fanatics. (To counterpoint this, Loevy records the dialogue of the deaf between the Israeli secular leftists who demonstrate daily at the Gaza border, attempting to explain to orthodox right-wingers the political—rather than religious—basis of Zionism.)
As both documentaries were largely shot before last spring’s wave of suicide bombings and the brutal bulldozer war they provoked, one can only assume an even more hopeless situation today. Whatever their differences, however, the settlers and Palestinians do share some common ground: Each demonizes the other. All see themselves as unique victims. And everyone, of course, has rock-headed faith in divine intervention.
“Stateless Cinema: Palestinian Film and Oscar Eligibility” by Kareem Fahim