DENNIS SCHWARTZ 
IS THERE ANY GOOD 
IN SAYING 
EVERYTHING ABOUT A MOVIE?

 
DIVINE INTERVENTION (Yadon ilaheyya) (director/writer/producer: Elia Suleiman; cinematographer: Marc-André Batigne; editor: Véronique Lange; cast: Elia Suleiman (E.S.), Amer Daher (Auni), Manal Khader (The Woman), Nayef Fahoum Daher (The Father of E.S.), Jamel Daher (Jamel), George Ibrahim (Santa Claus), George Khleifi (Jerusalem Neighbor), Avi Kleinberger (Trainer & Tax Collector), Salman Nattor (Uncle's Friend), Menashe Noy (Soldier on Checkpoint), Nazira Suleiman (Mother); Runtime: 89; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Humbert Balsan; Avatar Films; 2001-France-in Arabic and Hebrew, with English subtitles)

 
"Aside from getting a unique opportunity to view daily life in Nazareth, this film has little else to offer that's appealing."

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Director Elia Suleiman ("Chronicle of a Disappearance-1996") was born in Nazareth in 1960 and moved to New York in 1981, where he lived until 1993. In 1994 he moved to Jerusalem to make films and is where the European Commission asked him to initiate a Film and Media department at Bir Zeit University. His Divine Intervention is a heavy-handed provocative and disturbing look at the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that tries its hand at deadpan absurd humor shown through a tableau of personal reactions to everyday life for his pressured middle-class subjects. It's a sparse, personal film with long dull moments of silence and where each nonsensical situation is supposed to be reflected on as if great depth is to be mined from it. The seriocomedy farce is an acquired taste which often borders on bad taste, over-the-top surreal images, revolutionary agitprop and childish but deadly fantasies of violence against the enemy it mocks by having them in cartoon-like poses. There's no generosity shown in trying to understand a fellow human being, as everything comes down to whether you're on my side or else you deserve to be cursed at or blown up. It's a slight film that mixes its political aspirations with metaphors for anger and hopelessness, as DI shows the dreams and nightmares of the Palestinians living in these violent and uncertain times. What's particularly upsetting is that the educated director who also acts as E. S., the film's guide, poses as a rational and culturally alienated man but who is still trapped into seeing the road to the future paved with terrorist acts against the enemy and not through a meeting of the minds. He takes on the role of the ineffectual intellectual, someone caught in the political dynamics of the times and opts to go with the violent nature of the impending uprisings rather than reaching out to those in Israel who are willing to compromise. Comedy might be a way of diffusing the polarized emotions in a land where a deep hole of despair has been dug between Arab-Jew for over a thousand years, but Suleiman's comic antics leave a lot to be desired. In one such skit a peach pit he discards from a car window blows up an Israeli tank (it was shot in France, for obvious reasons; also, the director has said he carried out this scene during the visit of Ariel Sharon to the Elysses). In his most disturbing vision he creates a superhero Palestine ninja warrior female avenging angel (she looked like his girlfriend) to dispatch a group of dancing Israel Defense Force soldiers at a target range where they are shooting at veiled Palestinians, which smacks of being wishful thinking, lame satire or worse.

Palestine was once their country the argument goes, and now the Arabs only wait for when Palestine is once again theirs and the Israelis are booted out. These are not the aims to inspire confidence that anything short of divine intervention can solve this human conflict that can't so far be solved by even the world's best minds. Hatred is such an ugly emotion that it can make either side look inhuman. This film laughs at its enemies and at itself and at the absurdity of the conflict, but squanders that opportunity to initiate a change in attitudes by offering no help in moving toward peace as it stretches its point about the restlessness of the Arab people being attributed to not living in their own country. It seems that brother and sister Arab disagree with each other mostly because they are not fighting for what's theirs and are thereby pressured into having petty disputes with each other over such trifles as parking their cars, dumping garbage on the other's property, and in being so crazed that they destroy a soccer ball with a knife for no reason other than it landed on their property. Other loosely drawn sketches show a frustrated man putting a sledgehammer to a driveway, a man obsessed with saying the number six in every sentence as he converses with a laconic, lifeless welder, and the director's father (played by the actor Nayef Fahoum Daher) is seen as a motorist passing through town and ruminating about his failing business as he curses out all his neighbors to himself as he waves hello to them in his car. I guess the point being is that by not sticking together to fight the Israelis, they can't love each other or respect the things they value. The other point might be more subtle, as it relates to how absurd the conflict is--that it can be reduced to a series of comedy scenes such as the one where the director is sitting in his car and staring down an Israeli motorist in a Mexican standoff while playing a cassette of "I Put a Spell on You." Or, there's one scene where a balloon with the smiling Yasir Arafat's face on it floats across a checkpoint to land atop Al Aksa mosque on the Temple Mount. In contrast the Arab travelers can't get by the checkpoint (the soldiers were acted by Israelis who once served in the army), except for the fantasy scene showing the beautiful girlfriend of E. S.' (Manal Khader) suggestively gliding past the machine gun wielding IDF soldiers at the checkpoint as they can't get their eyes off her bod. Of course, for the filmmaker, it all boils down to the fault always being that Israel exists. Now if that state could disappear or be more of a democracy, then the supposition is that all will be right again in the Middle-East and Suleiman could live happily ever after in another Arab state that isn't a democracy.

The film's subtitle is A Chronicle of Love and Pain, as it points to the filmmaker's other underlying themes. The director's love is obviously not for his fatherland, but for his father whom the film is dedicated to and who died of a heart attack during the course of shooting the film. The pain in the title seems to be everywhere, on both sides (at last leaving us a glimmer of hope that the bonds of peace could be built on the chance to eliminate the pain felt on both sides). The love is also for his girlfriend, but their love is affected by the oppressive conditions that take away their freedom of movement. 

DI was a winner of the Jury Prize and FIPRESCI Prize, Cannes Film Festival, 2002. It also won the Silver Hugo (Special Jury Prize) at the Chicago Film Festival, 2002. It's a good film for Palestinian apologists to rally around since it pretends to be apolitical and unconcerned with violence except as a fantasy, and hammers home its point about Israel's oppressive occupation.

The film is set in Nazareth, the birthplace of Jesus, a city which is located in Israel but with the largest Arab population in that country. It follows a sorrowful and muted E. S. around town after his father collapses and shows him frustrated at his inability to get across the checkpoint with his gorgeous West Bank girlfriend from Ramallah, but meets with her for assignations at the checkpoint parking lot as they hold hands and stare quietly off into space and intently watch as the IDF harasses motorists for their IDs at the nearby checkpoint. No one's name is given on purpose as if to show how oppression can make one feel less human, and all the neighborly spats are also attributed to this feeling of oppression.

The director's roots of dissent go back to his father's militant stance to kick the Israelis out of his country. The director's father in 1948 was a member of the resistance that fought the Israelis and when captured received a severe beating after refusing to denounce El-Husseini, a Palestinian political leader back then, and when taken for dead was thrown off a cliff only to survive and be nursed back to life by his wife. The sullen E.S. visits his dad in the hospital and finds comedy in that the patients in his father's heart attack ward freely smoke in the corridors of the hospital. Every vignette aims to point at something that's absurd about life in Israel, but this kitsch often fails to work and as a result most of the film feels leaden.

In one of the more obscene and irrational scenes, the film opens as a man dressed as Santa Claus is running across a hillside with a group of excited Palestinian youths in pursuit. When Santa turns around to face the camera there's a knife sticking in his chest. You could read whatever you want into that but aside from it being a shocking visual, a rejection of Western culture and a statement about that region not being into the holiday season, there's a haunting feeling that the filmmaker can't let go of all the violence that has overtaken the land. Since the film was shot that violence has escalated out-of-control, as the extremist have taken over on both sides and the director's wishful fantasies of terrorist acts against Israel have come to full fruition. What now!

Aside from getting a unique opportunity to view daily life in Nazareth, this film has little else to offer that's appealing. For those who yearn for peace the best hope is to let both the Hebrew and Palestinian films keep coming, no matter how disturbing they may be, as the voices of pain on all sides must be heard and eventually dealt with in a sensible manner. The real message to this conflict might be if everyone waits for redemption, there might be nothing left to salvage.

REVIEWED ON 2/13/2003     GRADE: C

Dennis Schwartz: "Ozus' World Movie Reviews"

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