Dir: Elia Suleiman. France-Palestine. 2002. 92mins.
Subtitled a "chronicle of love and pain", Elia Suleiman's second feature belies its own maudlin-sounding description and reinvents the tragic tensions in Palestine as a deadpan, slow-burning, almost silent comedy. Lacing the surreal apocalyptic humour of Roy Andersson's Songs From The Second Floor with a melancholy Aki Kaurismaki-style love story, this oddball item will be a tricky sell, especially, it goes without saying, in territories and cities with a large Jewish constituency. Still, the director's technical skill and the topical nature of the subject should enable canny distributors to steer this towards thoughtful cinephile audiences.
Much of the film, including the long opening section, is a string of expertly conceived and executed sight gags. In the prologue, a man is seen running up a hill. He is revealed to be wearing a Santa Claus costume, completed with a basket full of presents on his back. He's pursued, by four youths, strewing parcels all along the way. Seen finally at close quarters, he has a machete in his chest.
A suburban garden is firebombed and, minutes later, the owner strolls out casually with an extinguisher to deal with the minor everyday irritation. A band of kids beat up and kill an unseen opponent, which one of them holds up at the end: a snake. A girl asks a policeman the way to a tourist attraction, and he promptly produces a blindfolded prisoner from the back of his van to give her directions. Shot in long takes with a fixed camera and framed with great precision, these incidents sketch in with bleak humour a world stamped by hostility ranging from casual aggression to extreme violence (though much of this occurs off-screen). It's all the worse for the way everyone seems to take it for granted.
With a sudden flurry of editing and music, Divine Intervention moves into a different gear around the 40- minute mark as a new character, a young woman (Manal Khader), sashays past an Israeli checkpoint outside Jerusalem. She's the lover of the protagonist, ES (played by the director), a lugubrious, hooded-eyed guy who never speaks and looks just like an Arab version of Buster Keaton.
Since the two live on opposite sides of the checkpoint, their contact is mainly confined to mournful, wordless trysts in a car park in no man's land. Completing the trio of central characters is ES's father (Nayef Fahoum Daher), who runs a failing car repair business. Eventually collapsing under the strain, he goes to hospital, where the Santa is briefly glimpsed as an out-patient.
Divine Intervention starts to flag around this point. One feels the need for the film to broaden and deepen our understanding in a way that never happens. The love story also goes nowhere much and lacks the emotional punch which Kaurismaki succeeds in packing with his own, similarly laconic characters. More powerful is the quietly affecting relationship between ES and his father, as the latter gently fades away (the film is dedicated to Suleiman's own late father).
The two long, elaborately choreographed comic sequences which dominate the story's second half feel like an indulgence. A red helium balloon decorated with a cartoon of Arafat floats past the checkpoint, to the consternation of the guards who want to arrest it, and drifts across Jerusalem, grinning mockingly down at the city. Later, on a shooting range, Israeli soldiers practising on targets painted as a Palestine woman are astonished when a real woman appears and trounces them all in an effects-laded parody of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.
Both scenes are undeniably clever, but laboured: Suleiman is better at the throwaway gag and subtle allusion than the big comic setpiece, and there's a nagging sense that these are cases of the director showing off what he can do rather than making a point. And after all, as last year's Bosnian comedy No Man's Land demonstrated, who needs flights of fantasy when the everyday reality is absurd enough in its own right'
Prod co: Ognon Pictures
Fr dist: Pyramide
Int'l sales: Flach Pyramide International
Prods: Humbert Balsan Suleiman
Cinematography: Marc Andre Batigne
Prod des: Miguel Markin
Ed: Veronique Lange
Music: Mirwais, Natasha Atlas
Main cast: Suleiman, Manal Khader, Nayef Fahoum Daher