From the Pressure Cooker, A Welcome New Release
Friday, January 31, 2003
"Divine Intervention," a collection of absurdist, sad and often confounding vignettes from the Palestinian director Elia Suleiman, is one of the most highly acclaimed foreign-language films of 2002. But it doesn't qualify for an Oscar, because the country of Palestine doesn't exist.
That's precisely the sort of contradiction that animates Suleiman's antic, puzzling and disturbing film. Set in Nazareth, Jerusalem, Ramallah and the checkpoint between the latter two cities, "Divine Intervention" examines the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and comes up with irony, grief, rage and, most unexpectedly of all, humor. Suleiman, who was born in Nazareth and lives in Jerusalem, doesn't spare his own people from sharp observation: Much of the violence and squabbling in his film is Arab-on-Arab. Still, there's no doubt where the director puts responsibility for Palestinian self-hatred. Still enraged by his own father's beating by Israeli soldiers in 1948, Suleiman traces the psychosis and self-destruction he sees in his community directly to that fateful year.
However, "Divine Intervention" is no screed. In fact, the filmmaker seems to place little faith in political cant, suggesting instead that reconciliation can be found in mutual recognition of the absurdities of modern Israeli life. In the film's opening sequence, a Santa Claus is being chased through the countryside by a gang of boys, toys spilling out of a basket on his back. In time it is revealed that Santa has been stabbed.
In another sequence, a boy dribbles a soccer ball, expertly using his feet and his head, and Suleiman wittily films the ball from the point of view of two old men sitting on a roof. After bobbing into view a few times, the ball lands on an opposite roof, where a man promptly walks out and deflates it with an angry stab. Later, the nameless protagonist of "Divine Intervention" (Suleiman) aimlessly tosses an apricot pit out his car window; the pit hits an Israeli tank and the tank explodes. At the Ramallah checkpoint, a gorgeous Palestinian woman (Manal Khader) defies Israeli soldiers and crosses into Jerusalem, her beauty rendering the guards helpless. Later on, Suleiman's character -- who, it's discovered, is courting the beautiful girl -- releases a balloon with Yasser Arafat's image on it and the balloon wafts over Jerusalem, finally landing on the al-Aqsa mosque.
Although these and the movie's other scenes are linked together in time and place -- and often by a culmination in some kind of violence -- Suleiman never makes their connection explicitly clear. Instead, he wants to evoke a psychological portrait of the Palestinian people, their sense of futility and tenacity, their foibles and their knack for survival. It's an effective, arresting and terribly moving picture, even when Suleiman's polemical points are ambiguous.
The movie's centerpiece is a fantasy scene in which a group of Israeli soldiers engage in target practice that could have been choreographed by Madonna; when their target comes to life as a Palestinian martyr, she turns into an avenging ninja, a whirling dervish throwing stones, darts and grenades. Is Suleiman offering support to the ongoing intifada? Or bemoaning it with mock-Hollywood excess? It's hard to tell, although even at his most mordant, he can never be accused of ironic detachment. The film's final image -- that of a pressure cooker boiling on a stove -- suggests that the director is aggrieved by the political history of his people, but that he thinks a little laughter might be a healthy release.