A 'Divine' Film Tackles Surreal Life
By Desson Howe
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 31, 2003; Page WE39
IT ISN'T every day you get to see a Palestinian-made film that tartly interweaves humanism and ironic detachment, romantic longing and cynical bitterness, surrealistic flights of fancy and revolutionary agitprop.
"Divine Intervention" is that animal, a one-of-a-kind experience, a Molotov cocktail of a seriocomedy. And no matter what your political sensibilities, you can't deny this movie's striking originality.
Such a fascinating collision of qualities is hardly surprising. Elia Suleiman's movie is set in some of the world's most politically surreal nerve centers, including Nazareth and a checkpoint between Ramallah and Jerusalem. In this land, where two deeply religious, warring cultures watch each other with locked-and-loaded intensity, nothing is too strange, too cruel, too sad, too unjust or too funny.
In one of the two main plots, a handsome man named E.S. (played by the director) meets his beautiful girlfriend (Manal Khader) at the aforementioned checkpoint. As they sit in his car, caressing each other's hands with passionate emphasis, they watch the comings and goings at the border crossing.
The Israeli cops check IDs and force Arabs to leave their cars, sometimes threatening them with machine guns. At other times, the guards are hapless fools, befuddled by unusual behavior. When E.S.'s girlfriend walks suggestively past them, they're too confused to even draw their guns.
For the two lovers, who are forced to meet at the checkpoint because one lives in Jerusalem and the other in Ramallah, this is routine nuttiness.
The other plot follows E.S.'s father (Nayef Fahoum Daher), a cranky old salt who waves to people from his car as he insults them under his breath and who suffers a heart attack. As soon as he checks into a hospital, he finds himself in a ward full of chain smokers.
These two running narratives are merely the most prominent in a scrapbook-like drama of weird and wonderful scenes, full of gallows-humor gags and more serious situations.
The movie can switch from nail-bitingly tense, such as the beating and killing of someone, presumably a Palestinian collaborator, to blissfully surreal: E.S. blows up a balloon that is painted with Yasser Arafat's face, sends it floating across the Ramallah checkpoint and creates a sort of subtle havoc among the agitated Israeli guards.
Suleiman, a Palestinian filmmaker who also made 1996's "Chronicle of a Disappearance," clearly views life (at least in this film) with a distanced humor that suggests a Mideast composite of Jacques Tati and Samuel Beckett.
At one point, for instance, a female tourist asks an Israeli policeman in a van for directions to the Holy Sepulcher. The cop is stumped. So he opens the rear doors of the van, pulls out a badly wounded, handcuffed Palestinian prisoner and thrusts the map in front of him.
The prisoner politely helps out the tourist, only to be hustled back into the van. As in most scenes, the camera watches from an unusually long distance. It's as if you're ogling rather than part of the action. And you're invited to giggle, even though the political implications are heavy-hitting.
The movie saves its most outrageous scene for last. When Israeli soldiers fire volleys of bullets at targets featuring veiled Palestinians, they are surprised to see a sort of female avenging angel emerge from behind one of them. In a remarkably fluid use of computer graphic imagery, this mysterious figure (who could be E.S.'s girlfriend) turns into a levitating superhero, impervious to the bullets raining on her body.
Instead of issuing angry diatribes, Suleiman ingeniously uses the tools of Hollywood (and the kind of visual manipulation that exhilarates audiences) to drive home his point. It's as politically partisan as it is canny. And its ironically comedic edge brings the movie into a slightly more interesting zone than overt bitterness.
DIVINE INTERVENTION (Unrated, 92 minutes) -- Contains sudden explosions and an off-screen beating. In English, Hebrew and Arabic with subtitles. At Visions Cinema/Bistro/Lounge.