By Sherrie Li
By Falling James
By Amanda Lewis
By Amy Nicholson
By Amy Nicholson
By Jennifer Swann
By Scott Foundas
By Sherrie Li
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 outMy 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.
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