In Elia Suleiman's Divine Intervention, the only place two lovers can meet is a parking lot in the heavily militarized zone of a land in constant turmoil.
Did I mention it's a comedy?
Divine Intervention is not only a dark comedy but also the winner of multiple honors at last year's European Film Awards and the Cannes International Film Festival. There was also a dust-up in the media when an Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences board decided the Palestinian film could not compete for this year's Best Foreign Film Oscar because the Academy does not recognize Palestine as a country—even though it has held observer status at the United Nations since 1974 and the Academy does accept films from Taiwan and Hong Kong, which also aren't countries.
It's a shame because filmmaker Suleiman pays homage to his disputed homeland through striking, irony-laden vignettes of day-to-day life in the West Bank. His wry, sardonic observations tackle not only the anger felt by Palestinians against their Israeli occupiers but also conflicts among the Palestinians.
Though Divine Intervention was shot before the latest renewed Intifada, security restrictions at the time dictated that people in Ramallah could only meet their counterparts on the Jerusalem side of the border in the parking lot of the Israeli checkpoint at Al Ram. It is there that filmmaker E.S. (played in melancholic total silence by Suleiman himself) romances a pretty woman (Manal Khader). At one point, they park their respective cars side-by-side on either side of the border so they can simply hold hands.
The clandestine love affair serves as the main thrust in Suleiman's film, but Divine Intervention is not a traditional narrative romantic comedy. Instead, it's a series of vignettes, and at times, the film can be excruciatingly slow. Fortunately, longer interludes are saved by wacky scenes that will leave you smiling. And while "big picture" Middle East politics are avoided, the vignettes do make individual statements about life during the occupation.
The best has E.S. behind the wheel of his car with his girlfriend in the passenger seat. He releases out the moonroof a red balloon with the face of Yassir Arafat imprinted on it. As they watch the Arafat orb drift over guard towers, Israeli soldiers take aim while summoning their superiors for orders to shoot it down. The balloon eventually drifts over the Al-Aksa Mosque, representing a small victory over the occupiers and an occasion for a rare grin from E.S.
Another shows a man in a Santa Claus suit being chased up a hill by a group of boys as the hot sun beats down. Wrapped gifts fall from Santa's backpack. The denouement: he is shown, inexplicably, with a knife in his chest as he collapses. The boys were not the ones who threw the knife.
As vibrant Palestinian music plays, the girlfriend, in high heels, walks head up serenely—even royally—her eyes covered in dark sunglasses as she passes Israeli guards aiming their rifles at her. Suddenly, the wooden guard tower collapses from its own weight. To show she's not just another pretty lady, she later manages to wipe out an entire detail of Israeli soldiers—plus a helicopter—in a scene worthy of the best kung fu flick.
Suleiman, who was forced to film some scenes outside the Middle East, probably relished one shot at an army camp in France that depicts an Israeli tank being blown up in Palestine. The director's real-life father was tortured by Israeli soldiers in 1948.
But rather than making a radical or self-righteous flick, Suleiman—himself a Palestinian living in Israel—chooses to find love and laughs in all the wrong places. For those who live under such constant stress, the only relief, he suggests, is laughter. No one should know this more than his occupiers, whose world-famous Jewish humor sprang from similar pain and oppression inflicted by Nazis and others in Eastern Europe.
"I'm hopeful about life," Suleiman says in Divine Intervention's press materials. "We can all laugh. . . . That means we can always agree it is better to laugh than to kill each other."
Would it be that George W. Bush were to listen to that advice.
Divine Intervention was written and directed by Elia Suleiman; produced by Humbert Balsan, Avi Kleinberger, Joachim Ortmanns, Babette Schroder and Suleiman; and stars Suleiman, Emma Boltanski, Manal Khader, Amer Daher and Jamel Daher. In Arabic with English subtitles. Now playing at Edwards University, Irvine.
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