Film Review: Divine Intervention
A Palestinian film that explores issues in modern day Palestine.
Director Elia Suleiman brings a lot of personal baggage to this film, one of the
hits of last year's Cannes festival. Divine Intervention is a very
autobiographical account dedicated to the memory of Suleiman's father who was
tortured by the Israelis in 1948. Shot in a more optimistic time, after the
signing of the Oslo accords, Suleiman's first feature film 'Chronicle of a
Disappearance' explored the editor's return to a Palestinian-unfriendly Israel
after a decade in New York. Divine Intervention is an extension of the earlier
film. Less serene, the new film is subtitled 'A Chronicle of Love and Pain'. The
love here is very specific (for the main character's father rather than the
stolen homeland, but the pain is generalised and chronicles the misery of
Palestinians today under a brutal Israeli occupation.
'Divine Intervention' is less about events or a story and more about the frustration of waiting for something to happen. Suleiman makes extensive use of noir comedy and absurdism to set the tone of surreal frustration that grips the film. The film opens with a very weird evening in Nazareth, Suleiman's home town and majority-Arab town held by the Israelis since 1948. Santa Claus is trying to escape a mob of kids who plant a knife in his heart, his torn sack spilling presents onto the arid hillside before he seeks refuge in a hilltop church.
Down in the city meanwhile neighbours alternatively build and sledge hammer down a driveway extension. A man systematically throws his bag of rubbish every morning into his neighbours' backyard. A youth appears in crisp football kit, kicking his ball repeatedly into the air till a neighbour punctures it. Another neighbour pegs bottles at his neighbours' heads. More docile locals wait hopelessly for a bus that never runs, imagery perhaps of a promised but never-arriving Palestinian state. Thuggish Israeli soldiers (played by Israeli Defence Forces veterans) brandish their M16s and reroute Arab drivers. Later the guards work off their boredom harassing the drivers, confiscating goods and bellowing the Israeli national anthem "Am Yisrael Chai."
The lead male character only known as ES, is played by the director. While
trying to nourish a relationship with a woman from Ramallah he's faced with the
death of his father. He's prepared to fight and resist to help these two loves
survive, resorting to subterfuges and audacity, such as a balloon with the
effigy of Yasser Arafat which, carried by the wind, bravely crosses the very
symbolic border and into the land-grabbed state of Israel. The woman
is virtually the only woman in the movie and she too is waiting for something to
Divine Intervention is a film of little dialogue in which the frustration of daily living in a war-battered society are shown for all their surrealistic, fuse-blowing reality. Thus the chaos and constant crazy violence between neighbours multiply. Amidst it all the young Palestinian couple tries to love. The prevailing political context prohibits them to love each other freely and their intimacy is limited to hand-holding in a car at an Israeli military checkpoint located between their fenced-off cities. It is on a nearby parking lot that this contraband love blooms.
The director's political views are stripped of any ambiguity: he calls to resistance, in all its forms, against the Israeli oppressor. Of course, the violence exerted between the neighbours in the first part of film is a metaphor. These bad neighbour relationships refer to Palestinians' daily lives. Suleiman makes a militant film that, as often the case, is a vehicle for excesses and sometimes extremism, provoking uneasiness. Such as a phantasmagoria sequence in which the young Palestinian woman fights Israeli soldiers during a training exercise. Taken as a target, she comes to life, rises whirling into the air, makes a halo of their bullets, and protected by a shield in the shape of a unified Palestine, turns unstoppable ninja-a David to the collective Israeli Goliath - who turns their weapons back on them. The scene could be construed as a hint from Suleiman that violence necessarily calls for violent insurrection. Divine Intervention was made before the Al Aqsa brigade began recruiting teenage girls as suicide bombers but a hint of forewarning or even encouragement of this development seems to exist in this scene.
While several Middle Eastern films have managed to convey both perspectives on the conflict, Suleiman seems intent on making a political point. Other reviewers have criticised Suleiman for not using his work to promote peace. The continual sheer suffering of his people has however precluded the director from any other approach to his art. With the honourable exceptions, traditional cinema and politics have rarely gelled in a partial form.
The ending is a piece of symbolism perpetrated wonderfully, Arafat's smiling effigy soaring softly and easily over the Israeli troops below who are too awed even to shoot it down. Thus Palestine triumphs, both by the balloon's triumphant passage through the blockade and the lovers' deceptive plunge through to Jerusalem.
Elements are taken from German expressionism and mixed with almost ethereal effect. Suleiman's approach to film construction here is Brechtian, a kind of epic cinema, one-thing-after-another piecemeal editing method that owes little to any plot. After the laughter caused by the absurdity of the situations that open the story, the film is quickly radicalized brings a certain uneasiness. Suleiman is a magnetic though taciturn leading actor, matched by his unnamed female co-star in an excellent effort of collaboration. The other characters are meanwhile too generally inconsequential in their own right. Suleiman's silent observations dominate while all around bit characters play out the horrible Palestinian reality.
Divine Intervention has no narrative. Events, sometimes reduced to gags, unfold as a distanced series of sketches and vaudeville turns. Suleiman films his scenes meticulously, with mise-en-sc?e details and precise compositions all primed to create a theatrical essence to the film. Suleiman regularly resorts to the slapstick and the absurd to create his point-full scenes. The frequent emphasis on off-screen action and deliberate use of sound also suggest theatrical production qualities. And because the deadpan director appears as himself, there's hints of psychodrama and silent comedy aboard here too.
Divine Intervention was largely shot before the bitter escalation of the Palestinian conflict, before the early 2002 wave of suicide bombings and the brutal bulldozer war they provoked. The film addresses the long-festering issues but one can only assume an even more hopeless film today in the wake of Ariel Sharon's re-gripping of power in Israel. Israelis and Palestinians often share the common ground of demonizing each other, each claiming victimhood. Israelis have a rock-headed faith in the land they steal being their's by divine intervention. Palestinians meanwhile wait for divine intervention to get their land back. The twain must meet and settle their difficulties without God.