Far From ‘Divine’

“Divine Intervention” by Israeli Arab filmmaker EliaSuleiman is going to delight some people, anger others and put still others tosleep.

It has been embraced by European and most American criticsas a brilliant absurdist comedy, recalling the style of French director JacquesTati, and the silent movie performances of Buster Keaton and the early CharlieChaplin.

On the other hand, the New York Post described the film as”less profound than tedious,” and, judging from a living room screeningattended by my wife and two visiting, left-leaning Israelis, the Post’sappraisal will be shared by many viewers, regardless of ethnic and ideologicalaffiliation.

The 89-minute movie was scripted and filmed just before theoutbreak of the current intifada. It unfolds as an impressionistic journeythrough present-day Israel, as viewed through the eyes of Suleiman, a highlyindividualistic, secular Arab, born and raised in Nazareth, the largestpredominantly Arab city in pre-1967 Israel.

The series of blackout sketches are tenuously held togetherby a plot involving three characters: E.S., a thoroughly modern, but utterlysilent, resident of Jerusalem (portrayed by writer-director Elia Suleimanhimself); his beloved, defined only as The Woman, a strikingly beautiful journalist(Manal Khader), living on the other side of the Green Line in the West Bankcity of Ramallah; and E.S.’s dying father (Nayef Fahoum Daher) in Nazareth.

Dividing the lovers, as the incarnation of Israelidomination, is a checkpoint between Jerusalem and Ramallah, manned by soldiers.Arriving in their cars from different directions, the lovers tryst at an emptylot next to the checkpoint, where they spend a great deal of time in intricatehand-holding and utter silence.

They have plenty of time to stare at the checkpoint, whereIsraeli soldiers (played by actual army veterans) halt, pass and humiliate Arabmotorists, more or less arbitrarily.

Other scenes edge into sheer fantasies of Palestinianrevenge. E.S., who logs a lot of miles between Jerusalem, Nazareth and thecheckpoint, tosses an apricot pit out of the car window, which spectacularlyexplodes an adjacent Israeli tank.

In another scene, The Woman, looking every centimeter aFrench fashion model, flounces across the checkpoint line in front of theopen-mouthed soldiers, with their guard post collapsing as she passes.

In the final, most spectacular, scene, The Woman istransformed into a whirling Ninja, deflecting the bullets of an Israeli platoonwith a gleaming shield in the shape of pre-1948 Palestine, and casuallydestroying a helicopter.

While Suleiman has no love for the Jewish occupiers, histake on his fellow Arabs is hardly more flattering.

Speaking of his fellow Nazareth residents, Suleiman hasdescribed them as “occupied, not militarily, but psychologically. There is atotal disintegration of any form of social communication or harmony amongthem.”

Indeed, they spend a great deal of time throwing garbageinto each other’s backyard, chain-smoking cigarettes, and cursing each other(and, according to connoisseurs, Arab curses are the most pungent of all).

“Divine Intervention,” in Arabic with some Hebrew and withEnglish subtitles, is billed as a “France/Palestine co-production,” and hasbeen received with high praise by European critics and cineastes.

The movie won two of the top prizes at last year’s CannesFilm Festival and another at the European Film Awards, beating out “My Big FatGreek Wedding.”

“Divine Intervention” has also been the focus ofcontroversy. Its promoters claim that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts andSciences rejected it as a contender for best foreign-language movie honors onthe grounds that Palestine is not a recognized country.

Academy spokesman John Pavlik noted that the film was neversubmitted for Oscar contention, and therefore was never considered or rejected.

The American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee has hinteddarkly that pro-Israel forces in Hollywood may have been behind thecontroversy.

Shown at various film festivals in this country, the moviehas been praised by most critics, less for its political message than for itsminimalist style and black comedy. It is questionable whether these attributes,as well as the film’s glacial pace, will appeal to less aesthetic moviegoers.

Interestingly enough, Suleiman’s previous film, the alsosemiautobiographical “Chronicle of a Disappearance,” was banned in Arabcountries.

That film’s final, and offending, scene, which the42-year-old director said was misinterpreted, showed an old Palestinian mansleeping in front of a TV screen with an Israeli flag flying high to thestrains of “Hatikvah.”

“I was termed a collaborator and a Zionist,” Suleimanrecalled. “I was booed in the screening room and tabooed in the Arab world.”

In an earlier interview, Suleiman, who now makes his home inParis and Jerusalem, had this to say about his work: “My films are first anexpression of who I am — a little distant, a little alienated, very sad. And,at the same time, very humorous. Very Jewish, really.”

“Divine Intervention” opens March 14 at the Laemmle MusicHall Theatre in Beverly Hills, (310) 274-6869; Laemmle’s Playhouse in Pasadena,(626) 844-6500; University Cinema in Irvine, (949) 854-8811; and MetropolitanTheatres in Santa Barbara, (805) 963-9503.