With practically no dialogue and a quiet procession of surreal images, Elia Suleiman's film about Palestinian-Israeli tensions near the border between Jerusalem and Ramallah feels more like a visual collage or performance art than a traditional film. You can almost picture turning the corner at an art gallery where an installation of mixed media includes a small screen playing a succession of powerful but bizarre images. And that's an observation, not a criticism, because this strange and wonderful film—in Arabic and Hebrew, with English subtitles—holds our attention for almost all of its 90 minutes.
How can it fail to, when it begins with the image of Santa Claus being chased up a barren and rocky hillside in Nazareth by a gang of youths with knives? Any film that starts off by plunging a knife into the chest of that cherished icon will do almost anything. And it's hard for Westerners not to associate that incident with Christ's martyrdom, especially when there's a later allusion where we see bullets rearrange themselves into a halo slash crown of thorns above the head of an airborne female Palestinian Ninja whose arms are extended. There's no explanation for these strange tableaux, just as there's no explanation for two men who sit on one rooftop watching the streets below, the way the two codgers used to sit in the opera box on "The Muppet Show" taking their entertainment any way they can find it. Part of the attraction for their vigil ends up being a talented young soccer player who does some amazing juggling and cradling of the ball until he finally heads it too high and it goes onto the roof across from the two men. Out shuffles another old man in his underwear, who takes out a knife, plunges it into the soccer ball, and tosses it back onto the street.
Welcome to the Mideast, where, Suleiman reminds us with such cruel and hilarious images, life is sometimes tragic, sometimes comic, and always absurd. Neighbors toss garbage back and forth onto each others' yards, a policeman uses a blindfolded prisoner to give directions to a befuddled tourist, and terrorists routinely firebomb and shoot up the house of a Palestinian who cleans up as matter-of-factly as if he were sweeping dust bunnies. All of the bizarre images have their roots in reality, Suleiman says in an interview, but one supposes that the inspiration for each tableau bears little resemblance to the overblown (but understated) final product.
"There is something resistant about humor," Suleiman tells an off-camera interviewer. "It deters finality, produces hope." Humor, he adds, can also have a poetic dimension, and while the young director claims that he doesn't use humor as a "strategy," he does approach his scenes by writing what "tickles" him and what is strong enough, visually, to enable some transcendence of what he terms "the banality of everyday life." This a hint of Beckett, as people wait for buses that never come, and even those engaged in activity seem mired in a kind of blasé stasis.
Like a sad-faced clown, Suleiman's character in the film, E.S., has a tenuous liaison with a woman who may be real or who may be as fantastic as the Ninja who bears her face. One of them is Israeli, the other Palestinian, and though they attempt bold crossings past the Al-Ram Checkpoint, most of their time is spent parked just outside the checkpoint. There, they make love with their hands while watching the absurd harassments that seem like exercises in power rather than border control. One wonders, of course, why this couple isn't huddled in a home together rather than sitting in a car watching the crazy proceedings at the checkpoint as if it were a drive-in movie. But there they are, sitting silently, caressing each other's hand, and staring straight ahead. The most action occurs when E.S., like a Parisian mime, produces a balloon with Yasir Arafat's face on it and proceeds to blow it up and release it. We're not supposed to question why, with only the character's hot air, the balloon would rise and drift across the border. While the guards are watching the balloon and trying to decide whether to shoot it down, the would-be-lovers speed past the checkpoint. It's the symbolic surreality of the tableaux that matters most to Suleiman, as well as the frame and what images he's able to manipulate within it.
Suleiman isn't terribly subtle when it comes to his message, which, as he says in the interview, is that we should be making love, not war. As his character drives past the perpetual war zone eating an apricot, he casually tosses the pit out of his window . . . where it hits a tank and blows the thing up with a fierce fireball.
With the exception of that symbolic bit and the balloon stunt, each of the tableaux is revisited throughout the film in what amounts to a collage of running gags. Some are more successful than others, and while Suleiman's comic timing is sharp for the most part, some scenes belabor a point. Case in point? At the hospital where E.S.'s father has been taken, one character arises from his bed like a modern-day Lazarus and heads into the hallway for a smoke. Then another character straps on his artificial leg and does the same. Soon the hallway is crowded with men walking their IV-bags and smoking, with doctors and nurses also lighting up. The gag goes on too long, as do some of the others.
Another of Suleiman's strengths is his sense of the frame. Quite often he uses a long-distance shot to great effect in order to emphasize the emotional content of a scene, or, as he prefers to call it, a "tableau." In one example, we see a shot of the street from an overhead perspective with a stationary camera. Then, into the frame walks a shadow, followed by the man who produced it. He shouts up (where we viewers are positioned), asking if someone could move the vehicle that's blocking his garage. The camera cuts to an upstairs balcony where a man is watering his plants and playing obstinately dumb. "What color is the car? What year is it? What is the license number?" And the punch line? The character below leaves the frame, and returns with the license plate in his hands to show the uncooperative neighbor. There are plenty of moments like that where the camera does interesting things to add to the overall success of a scene. In the hands of a lesser talent, these seriocomic vignettes might have fallen flat.
"Divine Intervention" won the Jury Prize at both the Cannes Film Festival and the Chicago International Film Festival.
Video: "Divine Intervention," subtitled "a chronicle of love and pain," is presented in 1.85 anamorphic widescreen "enhanced" for 16x9 televisions. Given the dusty and arid palette of the Mideast (most of the scenes were shot there, with others shot in France) the picture has very little graininess and the earth-tone colors still feel rich. It's not as vivid as some of the high-budget high-tech releases, but the overall visual quality is still quite good.
Audio: The film is presented with soundtracks in Arabic and Hebrew Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround, with English subtitles. But most of the film is silent, and so there isn't all that much of an opportunity to assess the sound quality. When there's an explosion, the sound spreads realistically across the center and front main speakers. That much I can tell you.
Extras: The one main extra features the director on camera, presumably in his study, surrounded by books on the cinema. With a cigarette in hand and scarf draped around his neck, he looks almost like the Director of clichés, and talks, at times, with a self-consciousness that borders on pretentiousness. But beneath that posturing he seems sincere enough, as he talks to an off-screen interviewer about his sense of film aesthetics and influences. He works in both "angst" and "euphoria" to create complex, layered tableaux, and that pretty much describes the effect that these scenes have on the audience.
Bottom Line: In "Divine Intervention," there are laugh-out-loud moments and ones that will make you question the capacity of humans to be cruel to each other. Sometimes those moments blur. If you're looking for plot, you'd better look elsewhere. But if you're open to a collage of images that suggest meaning—or the lack of it—Suleiman's film is uniquely engaging. It's a visual feast—though how emotionally or intellectually satisfying it is will ultimately depend on how each viewer responds to the images.