Movie review: 'Divine Intervention'

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3-1/2 stars(out of 4)

"Divine Intervention" is a gently surreal comedy about Middle East tensions in Jerusalem - a film whose eerie blend of deadpan wit and inner angst upset all your expectations. Subtitled "A Chronicle of Love and Pain," and one of the major critical hits on last year's world festival circuit, it's a beautiful little movie, but also a deeply disturbing one.The writer-director-star, Elia Suleiman, has the look of a sad, distracted comedian. His hangdog face suggests a lovelorn Keatonesque clown, a man apart staring soulfully at an absurd world. And that's pretty much what he is.

Suleiman and his film deserves their plaudits, though the picture's largely pro-Palestinian slant will divide audiences. Yet "Divine Intervention" isn't propaganda or melodrama. It has overriding themes: the absurdity of war and the underlying humanity of the people trapped in it, even when they give themselves over to violence or violent fantasies.Playing a fictitious filmmaker-actor named E.S., Suleiman, whose previous films include the Venice prize-winner "Chronicle of a Disappearance," creates a stripped-down, ultra-refined version of himself. Then he takes us on a bizarre tour of his hometown Jerusalem, neighboring Ramallah and the military checkpoint between them - the only place where E.S. and his strikingly sexy unnamed lover from Ramallah (Manal Khader) can meet.

Is this a "Brief Encounter" in the troubled Middle East? Actually, it's more of a "Mon Oncle" or "Playtime." Like the great French comic Jacques Tati and his silent alter ego M. Hulot, E.S. never speaks, and neither does his unnamed lady love. That silence becomes the film's most eloquent statement.

Instead, E.S. is mostly an observer, watching his Israeli and Arab neighbors and their petty squabbles and tense daily encounters, witnessing the last illness of his dying father (Nayef Fahoum Daher) and the oddball events at the Jerusalem-Ramallah checkpoint, where a small group of Israel policemen brusquely monitor passage between the cities. What E.S. sees - or what we see without him - is a series of macabre or sad jokes: a man dressed as Santa Claus attacked by hooligans, Laurel-and-Hardy-style neighborhood feuds, nightly fire-bombings treated as everyday occurrences.

When he acts, it's mostly in the realm of fantasy or imagination: releasing a red balloon with a Yassir Arafat picture to float mockingly over the checkpoint, or tossing a peach pit out of his car window just before an Israeli tank improbably explodes. (The movie's weirdest scene is a loony fantasy with Khader as an Israeli gun target who comes alive and does a Ninja-avenger comedy dance routine with the soldiers.)

"Divine Intervention" is about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but it treats war as a cosmic joke and its participants as hapless but recognizably human clowns. Made as a mostly French international co-production by a Palestinian director, an Israeli line producer (Avi Kleinberger) and a mixed Israeli-Palestinian-French crew and cast, it's a film that also lays bare Suleiman's own personal anger and anguish and the fantasies they inspire. But it also suggests that art (and cooperation), not war, is a better means of solving problems and dispersing tensions.

It will come as no surprise that this message will be utterly lost on many, including some members of the audience who will be convinced that "Divine Intervention" is nothing but Palestinian propaganda or incitement disguised as an art film. Sadly, they'll have missed the joke - and a great deal more besides.

"Divine Intervention"
Directed, written and co-produced by Elia Suleiman; photographed by Marc-Andre Batigne; edited by Veronique Lange; line producer Avi Kleinberger; music by Screamin' Jay Hawkins, Mohamad Abdel Wahab, Amon Tobin, others; produced by Humbert Balsan. An Avatar Film release; opens Friday at the Music Box Theatre. Running time: 1:29. No MPAA rating. Parents cautioned for some violent fantasy scenes and mature political themes.
E.S. - Elia Suleiman
The woman - Manal Khader
The father - Nayef Fahoum Daher
Santa Claus - George Ibrahim
Auni - Amer Daher
Trainer/tax collector - Avi Kleinberger

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