Divine Intervention

The film opens with a surreal Bunuelian scene of Santa Claus climbing up a hill overlooking Nazareth and being chased by some kids; once he gets to the top he is revealed to have a cleaver in his chest. Cut to a man driving down the street, waving to neighbors and cursing them to himself. Thus the tone for this absurdist take on oppressed people is set.

There is very little plot in this personal film which is about a man called E.S., played by Suleiman with a comic grace that reminded me of Italian auteur Nanni Moretti, his father, and E.S.’s lover, known only as “the Woman” (the stunningly beautiful journalist Manal Khader, making her film debut). E.S. is trying to hold together his relationship and help take care of his father (the foul-mouthed driver of the aforementioned scene) who falls ill during the film. E.S. lives in Jerusalem and his lover in Ramallah; they are not allowed to visit each other because her movements are restricted. So they meet at the army checkpoint, park their cars alongside each other, and silently stroke each others’ hands in a series of meetings throughout the film.

E.S. does not say a word in the entire film (and neither does his lover), but his eyes and face reveal the wry humor and sadness of his character. In fact, there is little dialogue in “Divine Intervention,” which is subtitled “a chronicle of love and pain.” Though slowly paced, the film is never boring, and at 89 minutes it is just the right length. I found it both very funny and moving. “Divine Intervention” is essentially a series of tableaux with recurring scenes of deadpan humor such as a man waiting for a bus that never arrives. The owner of the home next to the bus stop keeps coming out to tell him that there is no bus, yet he still waits there. Finally, he says he knows there is no bus. The Israeli army is lampooned in a series of scenes at their checkpoint. In a wonderfully satirical computer-generated scene, a balloon with Yassir Arafat’s cartoon likeness imprinted on it floats by the checkpoint and the soldiers debate about whether to shoot it down or ask their commanders for advice. The balloon then continues its ascent high over the Jerusalem landscape. Other outrageous highlights include: a tank getting blown up by an apricot pit; target-shooting soldiers breaking out into a Godardian dance routine as they shoot at female Arab targets in traditional (keffiyah) dress; and finally a keffiyah-clad Ninja (Ms. Khader) battling Israeli shooters in a spectacular digital-fantasy sequence.

I especially liked the way Suleiman establishes his scenes in long takes, overhead shots, and landscapes of the crowded hilly landscape, and the way he observes the events with a detached style of shooting. Unlike many Hollywood films that refuse to leave a shot onscreen for more than a few seconds, Suleiman’s well-framed, lengthy shots allow his characters to move in and out of his still picture, a naturalist approach that is quite effective here. His minimalist style has much in common with Finnish director Aki Kaurismaki, whose wry, deadpan technique is perfectly realized in his new film, “The Man Without A Past,” (to be released in April 2003) and Jim Jarmusch’s superb “Stranger Than Paradise” (1984). In fact, the soundtrack includes Screaming Jay Hawkins’ “I Put A Spell on You,” (performed here by Natasha Atlas) which was featured in “Stranger Than Paradise.”

This is the 42-year-old filmmaker’s second film and it won the Special Jury Prize as well as a critics prize at the Cannes Film Festival last year. His first film, “Chronicle of A Disappearance,” (1996) about day-to-day life among the Palestinian middle classes living in Israel, won the Best First Film award at the Venice Film Festival.

“Divine Intervention” alternates quiet, meditative scenes with outrageously sardonic ones. I found its unconventional, non-linear narrative complimentary to the alternately comic and sad tone of his film. And you don’t have to be immersed in the political situation to appreciate the film. It stands on its own as a portrayal of how civil strife in any part of the world affects the daily
life of ordinary people who are unable to lead “ordinary lives.”

By all means see this movie if comes to your town.

Rating: A