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Divine Intervention

Divine Intervention

Not rated, 89 min. Directed by Elia Suleiman. Starring Elia Suleiman, Manal Khader, Nayef Fahoum Daher, Amer Daher, Jamel Daher, George Ibrahim, George Khleifi, Avi Kleinberger.

REVIEWED By Marc Savlov, Fri., May 9, 2003

It’s immensely inviting to dollop as much praise as possible onto Suleiman’s abruptly humorous comedy of manners about the Israeli-Palestinian situation. After all, what could be more ripe for targeting from the satirical landmine of black, bleak humor than the ongoing, seemingly unending conflict that plays itself out daily on the West Bank? If it were 30 years ago, Robert Altman surely would have taken a stab at the bloody headlines, M*A*S*H-style, as he did for Korea/Vietnam, but apparently that’s tough to do when the body counts are just a CNN away. And so we get Suleiman, a Palestinian filmmaker born in Israel who’s watched a lot of Jacques Tati and Buster Keaton in his day and – for better, and sometimes for worse – views the current, horrific troubles through the cracked and dirty lens of slapstick. (You can already hear the post-film arguments on this one. Coming from a Jewish family with an elder sibling who actively supports the Palestinian cause, this reviewer is certainly not exempt from the brouhaha.) If anything, Divine Intervention is guilty of simplifying the Palestinian situation – the very idea that such a loaded topic might be fodder for a comic outing will surely be enough to rile some less cool heads. That said, Suleiman’s film is notable not for the usual, but for the unusual: In a tiny slice of the world gone madder than most, it seems reasonable to laugh at the horrors as the machinations of statehood grind inexorably nowhere. What else is there to do, honestly? Divine Intervention opens with one of the most surreal comic sequences ever put on film. Santa Claus, complete with a sack of colorfully wrapped gifts, flees across a sunny, Middle Eastern landscape, pursued by a gang of (apparently) Palestinian youths. Stumbling and heaving, he makes his way to an ancient hilltop ruin where he confronts his attackers, his presents scattered across the dusty plain. Turning in profile, we see the large butcher knife protruding from his gut: "Nazareth" reads a subtitle. It’s shocking bits of humor, outrageously painful, that constitute the best bits of Suleiman’s deeply, righteously subversive film. It feels almost flip to call it a comedy, but Suleiman, who plays both sides of the conflict against each other in this nearly silent film, hits paydirt when he mines the ambiguous nature of daily life behind the Sharon/Arafat media blitz. As the unnamed protagonist, who lives in Jerusalem, Suleiman pursues his dream girl (Manal Khader) from Ramallah through the smoky landscape. They meet in an empty car by the border, beneath the wary eyes of young Israeli soldiers, to grab quick snippets of romance. Later, in a bizarre scene that may or may not reveal Suleiman’s political loyalties, she appears as a rifle-range target come to life and, like some out-of-town ninja swaddled in CGI effects, kicks the Israeli army’s ass. Plotless in the conventional sense, Divine Intervention is instead a warped tone poem composed atop an ever-shifting field of battle. It’s ridiculous and smart, hilarious and terrifying, difficult to swallow and probably a necessary antidote to the cacophonous history of a land that all too often seems anything but holy.
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