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'Divine Intervention'

Hard truths in Palestinian film colored with comedy

Friday, March 07, 2003

By Ron Weiskind, Post-Gazette Movie Editor

You may not have seen anything quite like the current Harris Theater offering, "Divine Intervention," in which Palestinian filmmaker Elia Suleiman expresses the frustrations of his people through deadpan humor reminiscent of Jacques Tati.

 
 
'DIVINE INTERVENTION'

RATING: Not rated; contains harsh language (in subtitles) and manifestations of violence.

STARRING: Elia Suleiman, Manal Khader.

DIRECTOR: Elia Suleiman.

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Before the film ends, it escalates into a slapstick revenge fantasy in which anger simmers just below the surface. But the movie's duality establishes itself right from the start, when a group of boys chases Santa Claus up a hill as presents keep dropping from his bag. We laugh, a little uneasily, until we see the knife in Santa's chest.

And so the battle is joined, but the first half of the movie expresses itself with often silent comic vignettes staged with near-perfect timing and a strong sense of absurdity.

A man waits for a bus that he knows isn't coming. Another hauls bottles to the roof of his house. Yet another heaves bags of garbage into his neighbor's yard. One fellow drives along waving to the passers-by and muttering insults under his breath -- later, he sits at the kitchen table transferring mail he barely glances at from one neat pile to another.

As the scenes recur, writer-director Suleiman builds each of them toward a climactic moment -- a punch line, a reaction and, in one case, the bridge to the second half of the film. A man is hospitalized, and his adult son comes to visit (along the way, demonstrating the unlikely power of a discarded apricot pit, if only in one's mind).

The son is played by Suleiman and is referred to in the credits as E.S., although I'm not sure anyone calls him that in the film -- in any case, E.S. never speaks, except through his actions and whatever emotions we read into his Keatonesque deadpan.

E.S. lives in Jerusalem. His beautiful, glamorous girlfriend (Manal Khader) lives in Ramallah. The two municipalities are separated by an Israeli army checkpoint. So the two meet in the adjacent parking lot, where they watch the border guards harass and intimidate Palestinians trying to cross into Israel, often for no discernible reason.

In the movie's signature scene, E.S. releases a balloon bearing a caricature of Yasser Arafat that floats past the dumbfounded soldiers and across the Jerusalem skyline. Conversely, the movie violates its own aesthetic in a fantasy sequence that plays as a cross between an over-the-top ninja movie and a disco version of "Cop Rock."

The final shot, of a rattling pressure cooker that no one makes an effort to remove from the stove, proves much more symbolic of this remarkable movie's tone.


Ron Weiskind can be reached at rweiskind@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1581.

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