Divine Intervention (2001)

[20 February 2003]

By Elbert Ventura

Ghost World

Elia Suleiman drifts through his movies like a forlorn ghost. His sad eyes reflect as much as they observe the tragic topography of Palestine. What they see—and what we see through them—is a mosaic of humiliation and impotence, the broken narrative of a people doomed to indeterminacy.

This landscape in limbo is not only Suleiman’s subject, but also the seeming fount of his singular aesthetics. A combustible mix of deadpan and dread, his movies reimagine the Palestinian plight as a theater of the absurd. The insistent rhythm of aimless days inspires a succession of vignettes, some funny, some merely strange. The lack of a discernible plot seems to be part of the point: why should a movie about a people in stasis go anywhere? It’s not for nothing that his first feature was called Chronicle of a Disappearance.

Like its predecessor, Divine Intervention is also dubbed a “chronicle”—this time, “of Love and Pain.” An inflation of Suleiman’s art and preoccupations, it finds Suleiman giving his id free rein, to compelling—even disturbing—effect.

Part dirge, part daydream, the movie opens with a piquant flourish: a group of young hoods chase Santa Claus up a deserted hill. When he reaches the top, St. Nick finds himself cornered—and suddenly stabbed. As he falls, we cut back to a long shot of the hill. “Nazareth,” says a title card.

Suleiman follows that sequence with a less apocalyptic depiction of breakdown. A crotchety man drives down the narrow streets of Nazareth, waving and smiling at his neighbors. Little do they know that punctuating every acknowledging nod is a murmured misanthropic epithet.

Both scenes set the tone for Divine Intervention, a laconic lark that barely masks the rancor burbling underneath. The first half of the movie devotes itself to a minimalist depiction of daily Palestinian life. Two codgers sit on a perch overlooking a street, watching wordlessly as a boy passes by, kicking a soccer ball in the air. Every morning, a man goes up on his rooftop to arrange a collection of bottles, his routine a mystery. Another man stands at a bus stop, only to be told that the bus doesn’t stop there anymore. He says he knows, and keeps waiting.

Predicated on wide shots and a static camera, Suleiman’s visual strategy suggests a community enervated by ennui. Civility and social niceties collapse in the stultefying environment. A man throws his garbage into a neighbor’s yard everyday, and assails his neighbor for complaining. An angry motorist pries off the license plate of a car blocking his way. The tableaux have a cumulative effect, creating an implacable world where things happen in a vacuum.

Into this dead space wanders the filmmaker. Suleiman enters with a bang—literally. We are introduced to the protagonist (played by Suleiman; unnamed throughout the movie, the character is identified in the credits as “E.S.”) as he drives to visit his ailing father. Finishing off an apricot, Suleiman tosses the pit out the window, hitting a tank, which promptly bursts into flames. Hitherto unseen in Suleiman’s movies, the explosive display hints at further pyrotechnics, not to mention a new dimension in the director’s cinema.

Another triumphant fantasy introduces a new character. Palestinian motorists find themselves stuck in traffic at the Al-Ram checkpoint between Jerusalem and Ramallah. As capricious Israeli guards order the cars to turn back, a beautiful woman (Mahal Khader) resists their orders, and proceeds to walk toward the checkpoint. Cued to cheesy techno and shot to resemble a Hollywood actioner, the sequence climaxes with the woman’s confident sashay past the gaping guards, followed by the inexplicable collapse of the guard tower.

For the rest of the movie, E.S. and his dream woman settle for the ugly reality of Palestinian life. Living on different sides of the border, the two lovers must restrict their dates to a parking lot overlooking the checkpoint, their relationship reduced to handholding and a front-row view of the Israeli harassment of Palestinian motorists. Compounding matters for E.S. is his father’s failing health, which imbues the movie with an autobiographical undercurrent of mournfulness. (Suleiman’s father died during the project’s gestation.)

In its “democratic” approach to the image, Divine Intervention seems a direct descendant of the films of Jacques Tati. E.S. himself recalls the stone-faced characters of Buster Keaton. Suleiman has denied their influence, saying he hadn’t see either man’s films until after shooting on Chronicle of a Disappearance started. Suleiman’s movies also remind one of Jim Jarmusch, who is invoked, perhaps unwittingly, with an Arab rendition of “I Put a Spell on You” (used here, as in Stranger Than Paradise, to great effect).

If those affinities get at what makes Suleiman so appealing, they also underscore his limitations. While it may be churlish to compare Suleiman’s art to that of acknowledged masters, there’s no escaping that his mise-en-scène is less audacious and resourceful than it could be. Suleiman’s rigorous vision pales in comparison to the works of kindred spirits like Hou Hsiao-hsien and Tsai Ming-liang, two of the greatest filmmakers working today. His “gags,” as he likes to call them, succumb to the law of diminishing returns: at a certain point, the movie’s comedy of repetition becomes something that you appreciate intellectually rather than viscerally.

Nonetheless, Suleiman proves himself an essential voice in world cinema because his formalism is inextricable from the political moment it documents. At once intuitive and schematic, his movies are a pure expression of the Palestinian situation. If E.S.‘s vacant stare epitomizes the torpor of a fatigued people, it also disguises the malevolence that such lethargy breeds.

That malevolence, given outlandish voice in Divine Intervention, is easily the film’s most controversial aspect. The climax is a hyperbolic fantasia involving a high-flying female “ninja” facing off against the Israel Defense Forces. Twirling in the air, the superwoman slings stones at her armed attackers—essentially casting the Israelis in the role of Goliath to her David.

The most fantastic of the wish-fulfillment reveries in the movie, the sequence also illustrates the political and moral problems that complicate Suleiman’s approach. What are we to make of the fact that the violence visited upon Israelis occurs in the “safe” realm of the imagined? (Compare that with the film’s sobering and realistic depiction of the Palestinians’ oppression under the Israeli border guards.) Or that the only Israelis in the movie are armed and boorish? Is Suleiman sidestepping serious questions about the tactics of the Palestinian intifada (which are decidedly real) by portraying anti-Israeli violence as harmless fantasy? And what do we make of his use of Yassir Arafat’s image as an emblem for insurrection?

That there are no clear answers to these questions is a testament to Suleiman’s commitment to an open-ended cinema. It is also, perhaps, what makes his movie seem so provocative, if not irresponsible, to some. As the primary cinematic chronicler of the Palestinian problem, Suleiman finds himself speaking for an entire people, when he may only want to speak for himself. That his movies are so loaded with political, historical, and emotional resonance certainly complicates our responses. Is it misguided to seek a more balanced portrayal of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict? Is Suleiman suggesting that the notion of humanizing Israelis negates the idea of a Palestinian point of view?

Considering that Suleiman is so adept at posing intractable quandaries, it’s a shame that he ends this movie with an image of a pressure cooker—a most literal-minded metaphor. Divine Intervention is at its strongest when it is most suggestive. When Suleiman leaves the confines of his tightly controlled mise-en-scène for startling forays into phantasmagoria, the movie and all its implications threaten to spin out of its maker’s control. Then again, that troubling disorder is perhaps an all-too-poignant evocation of a benighted region.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/divine-intervention/