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Chronicles of Love and Pain 

Divine Intervention and Nowhere in Africa's displaced persons

Thursday, Mar 13 2003
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When Palestinian director Elia Suleiman's beautiful and inventive film Chronicle of a Disappearance opened in 1997, the director caught flak in the Arab world for being too conciliatory toward Israel. I'm willing to lay odds that Suleiman's latest film will find a more appreciative audience. Though his major theme — Arab life and identity under Israeli occupation — remains the same, the political and emotional affect has darkened. While Divine Intervention is, like the earlier film, a goofily absurdist work, it's also as pristine a distillation of Palestinian rage as I've seen outside the evening news. The tonal shift from regret to controlled fury offers a precise bellwether of just how low relations between Israeli Jews and Palestinians have sunk in the last six years.

Suleiman is an Israeli Arab who, like most of his compatriots, identifies as a Palestinian. Chronicle of a Disappearance caught the dilemma of Arabs holding Israeli citizenship, who are economically better off but psychologically more compromised than their fellows in the occupied territories. Trapped between mutually antagonistic worlds and lacking a coherent identity, they tend toward passive resentment of Israeli occupation. Suleiman, who spent 12 years in New York and now lives in Paris, has more divided loyalties than most — his political leanings are Western-democratic, he has friends in Israel (where Chronicle received respectful notices), and he reveres Jewish culture — which may account for the melancholy alienation that pervades his work.

In Divine Intervention, Suleiman plays E.S., a writer-director who's putting together a film as fractured as his own experience. He's an observer — handsome, impassive, silent — of the everyday violence, Arab on Arab, Israeli on Arab, that is life under occupation. Like Chronicle, the film is a collection of repetitive, seemingly unrelated vignettes, as symbolic as they are self-consciously waggish. The movie opens in Nazareth, where a man in a Santa Claus outfit, dropping presents as he goes, is pursued by angry young kids brandishing meat cleavers; when he turns around, we see he's already been stabbed with a knife. Another man — who we later learn is E.S.'s father — drives through town, waving cordially to acquaintances while cursing them under his breath. Two neighbors argue over who first hurled garbage onto the other's property. At an Israeli checkpoint halfway between Jerusalem and Ramallah, E.S. blows up a balloon with Arafat's smiling face on it, which floats over the checkpoint and on into Jerusalem, where it settles on the golden dome of the Al Aksa mosque, site of so much Arab-Jewish conflict.

Amid such genuflections to Jacques Tati, Divine Intervention (subtitled "a chronicle of love and pain") seethes with politically charged themes: an ambivalent and rather detached homage to Suleiman's father, who was a resistance fighter when Israel was established in 1948; the love story of E.S. and his girlfriend (a stunning beauty played by Palestinian journalist Manal Khader), who sit holding hands in a car on an empty lot next to the checkpoint, silent witnesses to the routine humiliation of Palestinians traveling between Jerusalem and Ramallah. Finally, the movie blazes into a full-blown revenge fantasy, complete with a female-ninja-warrior sequence that doffs its cap to Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon while dispatching a squadron of Israeli soldiers.

This nicely achieved set piece, which feeds gleefully off the pleasure all action movies take in destruction, has of course raised hackles. My problem is less with its violence — which is stagy and largely abstract — than with the fact that Suleiman seems to suggest Palestinians have no power beyond the purely symbolic in this conflict. This is disingenuous, as the charred remains of buses all over Israel attest. Indeed, Suleiman spends much of Divine Intervention stacking the deck: While there can be no defense of the occupation on any grounds, and while Suleiman is hard on his fellow Arabs too, he presents the Intifada as a war with only one aggressor. There's not an Israeli in the movie who isn't a dope or a bully. (And they're all played by Israeli actors, who must be very hungry for work.)

How far Suleiman has moved toward intransigence — in the past he has argued in print, some would say quixotically, against a two-state solution and in favor of a single democracy for Palestinians and Jews — may be a measure of his personal despair. Tragically, his stance also signals the growing inability of Jews and Palestinians even to imagine the situation from the other's point of view. Late in Divine Intervention, one of Suleiman's beloved long shots has the director and a Jewish settler in a yarmulke, their cars drawn up side by side at a traffic light, gaze at each other with pure hatred. The movie's final shot has E.S. and his mother (played by his real-life parent, Nazira) gazing at a pressure cooker simmering on their kitchen stove. "Enough already," she says. I couldn't agree more.

Predictably, Divine Intervention went over well in Europe, where it was named Best Foreign Film in last year's European Film Awards, beating out My Big Fat Greek Wedding (though I don't fancy Suleiman's chances of a television spinoff) and winning both the jury and the international critics' prizes at Cannes. Just as predictably, the film has run into trouble stateside even before it opens. Depending on who you talk to, it was either not submitted for Best Foreign Film (so says the Academy) or was rejected (so say Arab-American groups) on the grounds that Palestine is not a state recognized by the United Nations.

No such difficulties have beset the German entry, Nowhere in Africa, which has the advantage of being about the Jewish experience in World War II. For what it is — a grand, old-fashioned weepie with great scenery — the movie also stands on its merits. Based on an autobiographical novel by German journalist Stefanie Zweig, Nowhere in Africa tells of a well-heeled secular-Jewish family from the town of Breslau who manage to escape to Kenya in 1938, just under the wire of Kristallnacht. Inevitably they learn to love the place, but only after gargantuan struggles with poverty and farm life, and wartime internment — as German nationals — by the British. Shot on location in Kenya, the movie (told from the point of view of the young daughter, Regina, played as a child by Lea Kurka and as a teenager by Karoline Eckertz) narrowly skirts the gaga travelogue mentality — the landscapes! the noble natives! — that commonly afflicts such efforts. It is very good indeed on the discreet disdain of British anti-Semitism, as experienced by Regina at a snotty English school in Nairobi, and even better on the deracination of Jews who escaped Europe in time, only to suffer the agony of not knowing what became of their families. But the movie's real strength lies in its intelligent, sympathetic account of the dynamic, difficult marriage of Regina's parents, an idealistic lawyer (played by Georgian actor Merab Ninidze) and his spoiled bourgeoise of a wife (played by the ethereal Juliane Köhler, last seen as a spoiled bourgeoise in Aimée & Jaguar), who spends her last pennies before leaving Germany on a slinky evening gown, and doesn't take easily to slumming in the veldt. It goes without saying that both wife and gown will find new uses that will prove to be the making of them, just as it goes without saying that this likable drama, which rocks no boats and topped the movie charts in Germany last year, is practically a shoo-in for an Academy Award.

DIVINE INTERVENTION | Written and directed by ELIA SULEIMAN Produced by HUMBERT BALSAN and SULEIMAN | Released by Avatar Films | At Laemmle's Music Hall and Laemmle's Playhouse 7

NOWHERE IN AFRICA | Written and directed by CAROLINE LINK Based on the novel by STEFANIE ZWEIG | Produced by PETER HERRMANN | Released by Zeitgeist Films | At selected theaters

Reach the writer at etaylor@laweekly.com

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