A discarded peach pit blows an Israeli tank into a slow-motion eruption of flame and steel. A kaffiyeh-clad, levitating Palestinian ninja makes quick work of a posse of cocky Israeli soldiers. A stiletto-heeled, brunette bombshell of a Palestinian struts defiantly past impotent checkpoint guards. A deadpan Elia Suleiman blasts the Egyptian singer Natacha Atlas's rendition of I Put a Spell on You to the Israeli parked next to him. The neighbor is not pleased.
With mind-boggling grace, Elia Suleiman's Divine Intervention alternates between these oneiric highlights, and the day-to-day absurdities of Palestinian life under occupation. The film's storyline, if such a slightly structured film as this can be said to have one, concerns the laconic character called E.S. (Elia Suleiman) and his return from Jerusalem to his hometown of Nazareth in order to visit his dying father. Along the way, he falls in love with a woman living in Ramallah (Manal Khader), and observes the comic and cruel violence that has overtaken his home.
Not unlike many in the audience perhaps, E.S. is a disengaged, but not disinterested, spectator. He spends a great deal of his time parked by the Al-Ram checkpoint between Jerusalem and Ramallah, waiting to rendezvous with his unnamed girlfriend, all the while surveying the morbid inspections of Palestinian commuters. When not watching him and his lover erotically caress each other's hands, or stare blankly at the belligerent soldiers, we witness vignettes from his fracturing hometown of Nazareth. It is, comically, a parade of exercises in neighborly non-love: trash is thrown daily on a neighbor's property, E.S.'s father waves to his townspeople while privately cursing them, and Molotov cocktails are tossed in nightly drive-bys.
Suleiman's style is one of restraint, of deadpan looks and bone-dry deliveries. And like other filmmakers of the fantastically banal, such as Antonioni or De Sica, the slightest gesture -- a trampled newspaper, a caressed hand -- is magnified to almost comically allegoric proportions. Activities are choreographed with scientific precision. Nothing feels left to chance. Every disposed cigarette and closed door seems meticulously researched and rehearsed. As with Kubrick, there are six dozen ways to enter a room, and they've all been tested and explored. But with Suleiman, the exquisitely commonplace serves as a subtle counterpoint to flare-ups of political hallucinatory longings: enter the Matrix-inspired revolutionaries, and sexy border crossers, all replete with Arab-pop soundtracks.
The film's Technicolor daydreams are not entirely meant to entertain, but also to subtly educate. Divine Intervention is a lesson in the occupied imagination, of what might be running through the minds of millions facing second-class citizenship, non-citizenship, random detention, constant curfew, interminable waiting, and random execution. It does what narrative film does at its best: document the fantasies of a society, and in this case, a people whose desires seem to mean little to the world at large.
Filmed in Nazareth, Jerusalem, and France, Divine Intervention gives us a glimpse into the deliriously comic undertone of the Intifada and the occupation. To those who only know the conflict through blood-drenched documentaries and sensational journalism, humor may seem unlikely, if not out of place. Counterintuitive though it is, the humor is entirely appropriate, almost necessary, and drives every scene to frenzied climax. The best of comedy is often hyper-violent (Buster Keaton), desperately tragic (Richard Pryor), or radically subversive (Lenny Bruce) -- and Suleiman's wit excels at all three varieties. It is Palestinian humor at its best: as dark as it is charming, as willing to deal with the realities of repression as is it is to entertain outlandish flights of fancy.
At a single point, the film exchanges its humorous tone for a more morose and frightful kind. An Israeli checkpoint guard (Menashe Noi), drunk with petty power, begins to shout at parked Palestinians, and while screaming into a megaphone, begins to force them to switch cars and 'play along' with him as he sings, "the People of Israel live." During his stunt, the out-of-control soldier manages to steal a leather jacket ("Imported!"), and humiliate everyone involved with mass confusion and violent threats. It is an effective bait-and-switch on Suleiman's part -- one expects another charming interlude, full of wry witticisms, but there is nothing to laugh at here. This is a not a random explosion, but a regular, grotesque banality. The soldier has gone too far; but perhaps a long time ago, and has chosen to remain there since.
Suleiman is an expert at balancing extremity with banality, and his delirious scenarios propel Divine Intervention beyond the usual cinematic fare about the occupied territories. There are no crazed shots of chanting adolescent protestors, no excruciating depictions of numbing gore and victimhood, and most importantly, no easy diagnosis of the continuous tearing of the already shredded fabric of Palestinian society. For all of its allegorical images -- snakes killed in gardens, pressure cookers on stoves, floating balloons emblazoned with Arafat's portrait -- Suleiman's film is focused on characters who go about their daily commutes, sort their mail, and dump their garbage, all the while facing a boiling point of extreme emotion and fear. Everything always seems too quiet; you constantly await an eruption, and fear its results.
E.S.'s mother appears solely in the film's conclusion, and as if to underscore his already wholly present theme, the mother and son sit side by side, watching a pressure cooker on her stove emit a plume of furious steam. They are, as you might guess, inexpressive and intently focused. It goes on for some time, a full minute perhaps, before E.S.'s mother gets, like us, a bit overwhelmed. "Elia, that's enough," she says. It boils, exhaustingly, waiting for someone to finally, and emphatically, turn it off.
Postscript: Divine Intervention won the Grand Jury Prize at the Cannes Film Festival last year. Pettily, the Academy Awards brushed over Divine Intervention for a nomination for that year, because it discovered that Palestine is not a country. No, it is not -- yet. Palestinians are used to it: in international sports, beauty competitions, world politics, they have had to either merge themselves into a host country, or become relegated to an uncertain, token 'observer' status. In response to the anticipated disqualification, the film's distributor has chosen to release the film in the United States in 2003, thus giving the Academy time to get its act together. They should.