March 6, 2003
Far From ‘Divine’
Elia Suleiman's controversial dark comedy gets mixed response from both Palestinians and Israelis.
"Divine Intervention" by Israeli Arab filmmaker Elia Suleiman is going to delight some people, anger others and put still others to sleep.
It has been embraced by European and most American critics as a brilliant absurdist comedy, recalling the style of French director Jacques Tati, and the silent movie performances of Buster Keaton and the early Charlie Chaplin.
On the other hand, the New York Post described the film as "less profound than tedious," and, judging from a living room screening attended by my wife and two visiting, left-leaning Israelis, the Post's appraisal will be shared by many viewers, regardless of ethnic and ideological affiliation.
The 89-minute movie was scripted and filmed just before the outbreak of the current intifada. It unfolds as an impressionistic journey through present-day Israel, as viewed through the eyes of Suleiman, a highly individualistic, secular Arab, born and raised in Nazareth, the largest predominantly Arab city in pre-1967 Israel.
The series of blackout sketches are tenuously held together by a plot involving three characters: E.S., a thoroughly modern, but utterly silent, resident of Jerusalem (portrayed by writer-director Elia Suleiman himself); his beloved, defined only as The Woman, a strikingly beautiful journalist (Manal Khader), living on the other side of the Green Line in the West Bank city of Ramallah; and E.S.'s dying father (Nayef Fahoum Daher) in Nazareth.
Dividing the lovers, as the incarnation of Israeli domination, is a checkpoint between Jerusalem and Ramallah, manned by soldiers. Arriving in their cars from different directions, the lovers tryst at an empty lot next to the checkpoint, where they spend a great deal of time in intricate hand-holding and utter silence.
They have plenty of time to stare at the checkpoint, where Israeli soldiers (played by actual army veterans) halt, pass and humiliate Arab motorists, more or less arbitrarily.
Other scenes edge into sheer fantasies of Palestinian revenge. E.S., who logs a lot of miles between Jerusalem, Nazareth and the checkpoint, tosses an apricot pit out of the car window, which spectacularly explodes an adjacent Israeli tank.
In another scene, The Woman, looking every centimeter a French fashion model, flounces across the checkpoint line in front of the open-mouthed soldiers, with their guard post collapsing as she passes.
In the final, most spectacular, scene, The Woman is transformed into a whirling Ninja, deflecting the bullets of an Israeli platoon with a gleaming shield in the shape of pre-1948 Palestine, and casually destroying a helicopter.
While Suleiman has no love for the Jewish occupiers, his take on his fellow Arabs is hardly more flattering.
Speaking of his fellow Nazareth residents, Suleiman has described them as "occupied, not militarily, but psychologically. There is a total disintegration of any form of social communication or harmony among them."
Indeed, they spend a great deal of time throwing garbage into each other's backyard, chain-smoking cigarettes, and cursing each other (and, according to connoisseurs, Arab curses are the most pungent of all).
"Divine Intervention," in Arabic with some Hebrew and with English subtitles, is billed as a "France/Palestine co-production," and has been received with high praise by European critics and cineastes.
The movie won two of the top prizes at last year's Cannes Film Festival and another at the European Film Awards, beating out "My Big Fat Greek Wedding."
"Divine Intervention" has also been the focus of controversy. Its promoters claim that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences rejected it as a contender for best foreign-language movie honors on the grounds that Palestine is not a recognized country.
Academy spokesman John Pavlik noted that the film was never submitted for Oscar contention, and therefore was never considered or rejected.
The American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee has hinted darkly that pro-Israel forces in Hollywood may have been behind the controversy.
Shown at various film festivals in this country, the movie has been praised by most critics, less for its political message than for its minimalist style and black comedy. It is questionable whether these attributes, as well as the film's glacial pace, will appeal to less aesthetic moviegoers.
Interestingly enough, Suleiman's previous film, the also semiautobiographical "Chronicle of a Disappearance," was banned in Arab countries.
That film's final, and offending, scene, which the 42-year-old director said was misinterpreted, showed an old Palestinian man sleeping in front of a TV screen with an Israeli flag flying high to the strains of "Hatikvah."
"I was termed a collaborator and a Zionist," Suleiman recalled. "I was booed in the screening room and tabooed in the Arab world."
In an earlier interview, Suleiman, who now makes his home in Paris and Jerusalem, had this to say about his work: "My films are first an expression of who I am -- a little distant, a little alienated, very sad. And, at the same time, very humorous. Very Jewish, really."
"Divine Intervention" opens March 14 at the Laemmle Music Hall Theatre in Beverly Hills, (310) 274-6869; Laemmle's Playhouse in Pasadena, (626) 844-6500; University Cinema in Irvine, (949) 854-8811; and Metropolitan Theatres in Santa Barbara, (805) 963-9503.