“Where am I?” a disoriented Israeli cabdriver asks his dispatcher at the beginning of Elia Suleiman’s The Time That Remains. This pointillist portrait of Israeli Arabs in Nazareth tries to answer that plaintive question in four quiet, uneven, partly autobiographical, seriocomic episodes set in 1948, 1970, 1980, and the present.
Suleiman’s treatment of the ’48 Arab-Israeli War showcases the Palestinian filmmaker’s eye for a mordant set piece, as Nazareth’s mayor must pose for a photo with Israeli army officers after signing terms of surrender. The photographer’s big ass fills the screen, pointed directly at the rest of the city’s Arab leaders. These early sections, based on the diaries of Suleiman’s father, Fuad—played here by the striking Saleh Bakri—are the film’s strongest, thanks in great measure to DP Marc-André Batigne’s vibrant images of the old city’s sunbaked glory. (One shot of a biplane dropping propaganda leaflets over the hills of Galilee makes you despair for Nazareth’s future and desperately want to visit.)
Once the focus shifts to Elia himself, played by the director as a wide-eyed silent-movie naïf, the pace slackens. Suleiman’s a more assured director than he is a comedian. But individual, Tati-worthy gags still have great power, as when a pitched battle between Arab doctors and Israeli soldiers plays out in a single sustained long shot through the windows of a hospital corridor. And when Elia’s aged, diabetic mother—years after the arrest of her husband—sits on her apartment balcony, ignoring the fireworks exploding over those Galilean hills, it’s a complicated moment in a potent film.