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Santa Claus tries to outrun a gang of knife-wielding youth. It's one of several vignettes of Palestinian life in Israel - in a neighborhood in Nazareth and at Al-Ram checkpoint in East Jerusalem. Most of the stories are droll, some absurd, one is mythic and fanciful; few words are spoken. A man who goes through his mail methodically each morning has a heart attack. His son visits him in hospital. The son regularly meets a woman at Al-Ram; they sit in a car, hands caressing. Once, she defies Israeli guards at the checkpoint; later, Ninja-like, she takes on soldiers at a target range. A red balloon floats free overhead. Neighbors toss garbage over walls. Life goes on until it doesn't. Written by
"Divine Intervention," or" A Godlike Hand," consists of many vignettes which are Tati-esque "sans paroles" cartoons (they call them "bidoon ta'leeq" in Arabic, without comment), or comic strips actually, since scenes keep returning with slight changes and end with implied punch lines.
The first half focuses on individuals in Jerusalem, the last on Suleiman himself, his father (Nayef Fahoum Daher), and his girlfriend (Manal Khader). His girlfriend disappears and his father dies. The director plays like the sad-faced Buster Keaton doing "Waiting for Godot." He's also been compared to Hal Hartley and Groucho Marx and Yiddish humor, but what we need to remember is that this is a series of disjointed cartoons. Suleiman's aim is not to tell a story but to delineate with bitter, detached irony the miseries and absurdities of Palestinian life under Israeli occupation. In doing so he has had full access to a large Israeli cast, including actual or former IDF border guards.
The movie was originally nominated for the Oscar for Best Foreign Film -- and then taken off the list because Palestine 'is not a legitimate nation.' That's what Golda Meir used to say; the Motion Picture Academy is more backward than the judges at Cannes, which gave Suleiman two jury prizes. Politics are different in the USA, as observers of world events are currently all too well aware, and "Divine Intervention" is unlikely to be as well appreciated in America as in Europe. American and English reviews have frequently focused on the movie's weaknesses and overlooked its elegance and restrained passion.
Indeed there are subtleties that will elude an audience from outside Israel. I'm told that the green envelopes "E.S.'s" father is opening are government mail, whatever you get from different ministries and departments, and the big blue envelope pertains to income tax. It just looked like junk mail to me. In another sequence something happened with the owner of a house who was the object of fire bombings, but I didn't follow the outcome.
Suleiman's black images of Israeli occupation resemble the humor of the concentration camp; the occupation is like a summery, open air detention center, the Jews giving back what they got under the Nazis to the people they got their land from. The final aim is still extermination and removal of a people.
The detachment of Suleiman's view, and perhaps the warped sensibilities that repression and frustration cause, are reflected in the meanness and feuding he depicts as existing daily among the Palestinians themselves and their contacts with Israelis; the alienation in the constant sound of Hebrew in the ears of Arabic speakers. Neighbors throw garbage in each other's yards, puncture a boy's lost soccer ball before returning it; drive along greeting acquaintances and cursing them under their breath.
Between Jerusalem, where E.S. lives, and Ramallah, where his girlfriend is, lies one of the infamous checkpoints: the lovers' separation causes them to meet at a vacant lot next to it. They stare ahead with blank sadness, twining their hands together. Their lovemaking is reduced to that tiny gesture. They sit impassively for hours, as Palestinians must sit in car queues for hours at the checkpoints. Sometimes Suleiman shifts to fantasy: an apricot pit E.S. flips out his car window blows up a tank, or a pretty girl (his girlfriend?) in tight clothes leaves her car, and approaches the elevated observation cabin of a checkpoint, to the consternation and arousal of the young Israeli guards. She walks past, and the whole observation cabin magically disintegrates. (These two sequences had to be staged and shot in France.)
Another time a lively new guard takes over with a megaphone barking commands at Palestinian motorists, stealing a young man's imported leather jacket, ordering others to switch cars, making another sing along with him, humiliating them all, and then suddenly waving the whole line of cars through. The Palestinians are at the mercy of individual personalities, and have only a choice between humiliation and cruelty.
E.S.'s father sits in his pajamas having breakfast seemingly for hours opening the mail mentioned above, eating an egg. He smokes a cigarette and then gets up, and falls onto the floor.
Hospital scenes follow which emphasize how everybody, patients, doctors and nurses, constantly smokes.
Periodically we see Suleiman/E.S. pulling large Post It's off a wall, representing all the little episodes of the movie.
In an elaborate sequence toward the end five Israelis do target practice in formation like chorus girls shooting up effigies of a Palestinian woman -- the girlfriend -- wearing a kufia mask. Finally the real woman emerges from behind the one remaining effigy, dodges dozens of bullets, flies into the air transmogrified into a martyr, emits stones that knock down the men, blows them up with grenades, and spins off in the air like a Ninja. This, and the opening sequence in which Arab boys chase and stab a costumed Santa Claus, have been criticized in English-language reviews as too vicious or too fanciful, but they accurately represent the workings of a tormented Palestinian mind.
It's important to remember that there's no intention to tell a connected story here; Suleiman is an observer and note-taker. Returned to Jerusalem since 1994, he lived abroad for a decade before that, mostly in New York. Like all Palestinians he is rootless and international, treated like dirt in his native land. The power of his observations is in their coolness and wry humor.
For all the explosions, shooting, beatings (of a snake, in one scene) and expressions of hostility, the movie is marked by its distance, stillness, and restraint. People are seen from afar, head on, or from above. Perhaps the most memorable image is the one of E.S. and his girlfriend staring impassively forward for hours at the checkpoint. Passive endurance is the hallmark of Palestinian survival as seen in "Divine Intervention."
A highly symbolic scene is the repeated one of a bus stop where one man is standing and another comes and says, "There's no bus," and the first one says, "I know!" This pinpoints the hopeless situation of the whole society.
Despite the links with classic movie comedy tradition, Suleiman has a unique and sadder vision. One may or may not find the scenes amusing or entertaining but one does get a sense of the average Palestinian's predicament. Bitter irony and detachment are two of the only ways of dealing with it.
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