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Turning tragedy into humor

Times Staff Writer

Few places on Earth seem more tragic at this moment than the checkpoint between Jerusalem and Ramallah. In Elia Suleiman’s fiction film “Divine Intervention,” the checkpoint isn’t just a physical divide between two warring peoples; it’s a ritual space in which Israelis and Palestinians reenact their compulsively violent, heartbreakingly bloody relationship on a daily basis. For the Israeli soldiers manning the checkpoint it’s a buffer zone. For the two Palestinian lovers who meet at its perimeter -- he’s from Ramallah, she’s from Jerusalem -- it’s a theater of the absurd.

Written and directed by a Palestinian working with a largely Israeli cast and crew, “Divine Intervention” is guaranteed to infuriate anyone with strongly partisan opinions about the region. The film offers up simultaneous critiques of Palestinian and Israeli extremism, but the most radical thing about it is that it’s often disquietingly funny. Composed of a series of precisely calibrated comic vignettes -- some allegorical, others more abstract -- it paints a portrait of contemporary Palestinian life as an unending series of tribulations that, having begun in tragedy, have gone round the bend into full-scale burlesque. Nietzsche said that what doesn’t destroy us makes us stronger; Suleiman, whose philosophy hews closer to Marx (as in Groucho), seems to believe that what doesn’t destroy us makes us laugh.

And laugh we do, at times with apprehension. A beautiful woman (Manal Khader) strolls through a checkpoint like a model on a catwalk, destroying a guard tower with only her steely gaze. Sometime later, hospital patients tethered to IVs wander the corridors furiously puffing on cigarettes -- life can be murder on the nerves. (If the soldiers don’t get you, the tobacco companies will.) In between these fantasies of resistance and tableaux of ironic despair, Suleiman enters wordlessly, playing a version of himself called E.S. Recently returned from abroad to visit his ailing father (Nayef Fahoum Daher), E.S. spends much of his time driving around (he’s the guy in the car with his girl at the checkpoint) and piecing together a story written on Post-its.

E.S. is effectively writing the movie we’re watching on his Post-its (“Father falls sick”). It’s a self-conscious gesture of creation amid a storm of passionate destruction; it’s also a gesture of resistance. However measured, “Divine Intervention” is unquestionably a Palestinian film about a people’s desire for freedom, a desire continually at war with both Israeli militarism and the Palestinians’ own worst impulses. Throughout the film, Suleiman shows Palestinians stubbornly fighting among themselves. E.S., however, doesn’t utter a single word (there’s a touch of the silent actor in Suleiman’s stone-faced beauty), and in his silence it’s possible to find a world of explanation. The fight between the Israelis and the Palestinians has made for a lot of noise -- if nothing else, it can be hard to think clearly.

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Constructing a political satire on gags and allegories is perilous business, and not everything in the film works as elegantly as the sight of feuding neighbors obsessively building up and tearing down the same shared driveway. Like a lot of satirists, Suleiman does better with a light touch, and it’s somehow apt that his weakest bits are also the most violent. An overlong sequence in which a Palestinian woman puts Ninja moves on machine-gun toting Israelis is embarrassingly crude, while a scene in which a man dressed in a Santa Claus outfit being chased by rock-throwing youths is merely baffling. Even after seeing the film twice, I am still trying to puzzle through if it’s meant to depict internecine intolerance or if Suleiman just has a thing against Christmas.

It’s a rare moment of opacity in a film that’s generally as easy to read as international road signs. In one of the film’s sliest interludes, a group of men bash an unseen something with bats. Because the scene is filmed at a distance it’s impossible to see what they’re attacking though the queasy-making sounds lead you to suspect the worst. Your suspicions are deepened when one of the men proceeds to put three bullets in the target. It’s only then, after one of the men pokes at the ground with a stick, that we see their pathetically puny quarry. Is this symbolic of Palestinian overreaction or is Suleiman baiting us, provoking our worst fears about Arabs? The point, I think, isn’t the scene but how you look at it.

*

‘Divine Intervention’

MPAA rating: Unrated

Times guidelines: Some explosions, gunfire and adult language.

Elia Suleiman...E.S.

Manal Khader...The woman

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Nayef Fahoum Daher...The father

Amer Daher...Auni

Jamel Daher...Jamel

A co-production of Ognon Pictures, Arte France Cinema, Gimages Films, Soread 2M, Lichtblick, Filmstiftung NRW, with the participation of Centre National de la Cinematographie, Fonds Sud, Hubert Bals Fund, Ford Foundation, European Commission (East Jerusalem Office), French General Consulate (Cultural Service East Jerusalem Office), released by Avatar Films. Director-writer Elia Suleiman. Producer Humbert Balsan. Director of photography Marc-Andre Batigne. Editor Veronique Lange. Sound Laurent Laffran. Running time: 1 hour, 29 minutes.

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In limited release.


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