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Inflated Notions: Elia Suleiman's 'Divine Intervention' finds satire in a dire situation.

Crazy Love

Romance in the occupied territories is the stuff of wry satire in Elia Suleiman's 'Divine Intervention'

By Richard von Busack

I FIND it easy to recommend Elia Suleiman's award-winning Palestinian film Divine Intervention, despite its frequent intransigence. When all's said and done, it communicates itself well. The film conveys the loneliness of being a sane, calm, tempered person in Israel/Palestine, or Istine or Palreal.

Filmed in Nazareth (Suleiman's home town) and Jerusalem (his home today), it works as an elliptical kind of protest film, as well as an elegy to his father. To use a Mediterranean image, watching Divine Intervention is like eating a pomegranate--a lot of picking, a lot of seeds and yet undeniable juiciness and flavor. I'm dead certain I missed a lot of what was going on. (An Internet review of Suleiman's earlier film, Chronicle of a Disappearance, included the honest comment, "It would probably help if I actually knew what it was about, but I figure I won't let that obstacle stop me.")

I'm sure that there are many Americans who have the only the vaguest idea of Israel, of how the Palestinian population is kept in separate cities and subjected to a good deal of police intimidation on the roads (thus the key scenes in Divine Intervention). The Israeli government justifies this watchfulness in the name of national security, particularly in a time of increased terrorist attacks.

Suleiman, born in 1960, lived in New York as an exile for a while before coming back to start a film program at Bir Zeit University. I liked Suleiman's work right away because he's so unimpressed by the idea of "the holy land"--as if any place on Earth were holier than any other place!

Viewing these fabled cities, his characters stare at them glumly, trying to get past the myths. The first shot is mythical: it's Santa Claus in Nazareth (Santa's probably from there, like Jesus) chased up a cactus-lined hill by a group of vicious, rock-throwing street kids.

Santa pulls through but ends up in a hospital in the same ward with a dying father, a dignified old man who has come to his end, struck down with a massive heart attack during his morning cigarette and coffee. The circle of the story expands.

The old man's neighborhood is a "good" neighborhood--the locals keep it that way through assaults on strangers, sabotaging the entry roads and by constant warring with those who take up parking spaces. It's a neighborhood of idle middle-aged men, the old fellows sitting on outside chairs staring grumpily off into space. The finale of the neighborhood's history is a monologue: a huffy neighbor telling about what an asshole the guy down the street as. As it's told, we quickly realize that the storyteller is the one who's an asshole.

The dying man's son is involved in a Romeo and Juliet story. He meets his lover at the Ramallah army checkpoint to silently hold hands and watch the long slow caravan of cars interrogated by men with guns. Mischievously, the lovers use a balloon with Arafat's face on it to trick the guards.

One day she doesn't show up. He stays and waits and watches, as an Israeli soldier brings out a bullhorn and starts taunting the roadblocked cars, meanly forcing one male victim to dance a hora with him. The forced dance is avenged later in a superhero sequence that X-Men 2 will be hard put to top: where the Wonder Woman of Palestine rises up out of the dust and defends herself against a group of synchronized dancing Israeli gun nuts.

Divine Intervention resembles Jacques Tati's sweetly remote comedies. Suleiman's film is full of long-distance shots, of absurd little cars that slowly creep from one end of the frame to the other or pirouette around each other. We watch the mysterious rituals that very somber, self-important men carry out under the eye-of-God camera. Suleiman isn't bothered by Israeli swaggering or Palestinian bloody-mindedness, but by the bedrock of the 60-year-long quarrel between them. The film is a satire on stubbornness itself.

Suleiman has made a stylish movie that can be compared to Y Tu Mamá También, a way of discarding the mold of melodrama to tell of a tragic, seemingly hopeless land. Divine Intervention is nothing but blackouts and sketches; it must be due to the Middle Eastern love of parables.

Divine Intervention is trying at times. The romance scenes seem meant to be the heart of the film, but these blackouts are so cutely vague that they have neither dramatic or romantic tension. The film is cryptic, definitely, but funny, certainly. The film's much repeated phrase, "I am crazy because I love you," makes it clear what it's like to love a land, while being driven crazy by the people who live there. What American couldn't understand that?

Divine Intervention (Unrated; 92 min.), directed and written by Elia Suleiman, photographed by Marc-André Batigne and starring Nayef Fahoum Daher, opens Friday at the Camera 3 in San Jose.

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From the March 27-April 2, 2003 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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