Divine Intervention


(first section 8/10, second section 3/10)

Yadon ilaheyya aka Intervention Divine : Palestine (Pal/Fr/Morocco/Ger) 2002 (made 2001) : Elia SULEIMAN : 92 mins (some versions reportedly run up to 100 mins)

Even more dramatically than fellow Cannes 2002 “premieree” Morvern Callar, Divine Intervention is what would be called, in footballing terminology, a film of two halves. Just as Lynne Ramsay’s movie abruptly loses its way around the hour mark, likewise Suleiman’s film enters a dizzying downspin at roughly the half-way stage – perhaps it’s more than coincidence that both movies are their directors’ second features.

Divine Intervention is, for forty-five minutes or so, a delight – as many critics have noted, what Suleiman crafts is pretty much a Nazareth-set cousin of Otar Ioseliani’s deadpan, freewheeling observational comedy Lundi Matin.

Through a series of wry, mostly dialogue-free vignettes, we peep into the lives of various residents in an unremarkable, relatively affluent middle-eastern neighbourhood. And while, to paraphrase Jack Kerouac, it’s always “a quiet afternoon in the universe” here, the underlying emotions and tensions are anything but quiet. Neighbourliness is often in rather short supply, and Suleiman’s subject is the social contract, its limitations and abuses. Perhaps the most spectacularly misanthropic individual on show is a sixtyish chap (Nayef Fahoum Daher) who we see driving his car down a busy street, waving at passers-by then cursing each one under his breath. His rage and discontent builds until he has a heart attack, at which point he’s taken to hospital and the focus shifts to his fortyish son, a character identified in the credits as E.S. (Suleiman himself).

Up to the entry of Suleiman the actor, Divine Intervention creates a beguiling atmosphere all its own – Suleiman the director (working with cinematographer Marc-Andre Batigne) makes especially witty use of the entire cinema frame as a multi-level architectural environment in which his characters’ machinations are played out. There’s thankfully no ‘funny music’ to cue us in and the camera remains static, with many clever gags rely on events occurring just off screen, with vital information teasingly withheld from the audience. Many sequences are repetitions of earlier events with minor but crucial variations, and there are several satisfying comic ‘routines’ relying on classic techniques of buildup and payoff.

The appearance of E.S., however, sees the film’s plot head down unexpected new avenues. We leave the father behind and concentrate on the son – specifically, his geographically tricky romance with an unnamed, strikingly attractive, thirtyish young woman (Manal Khader). He lives in Jerusalem, she in Ramallah – the two areas separated by an Israeli checkpoint. The pair can only meet in their cars at the checkpoint, where they sit caress each other’s hands, silent watching the militaristic shenanigans unfolding before them. Suleiman’s political concerns take over from his social-observation material, and it isn’t a positive move: the film becomes increasingly laboured and ponderous, with endless pregnant gazes from and between the two mute Palestinian love-birds. Little back-story or character detail is presented about this pair, making it very hard to become engaged with their plight.

As this very torpid romance unfolds, Suleiman the director tries to maintain our interest by inserting a couple of bizarre – and rather shoddily executed – special-effects sequences which feel like they’re from another movie altogether: E.S. blows up a red balloon featuring the smiling face of PLO chairman Yasser Arafat, which then floats across the Jerusalem before coming to rest at the top of a golden mosque dome. Later, and even more incongruous, is a heavily stylised and choreographed martial-arts fantasy sequence in which a gravity-defying Khader eliminates a squadron of Israeli militia-men at a hill-top firing range to the accompaniment of pounding music. By this stage what was initally a divertingly austere, poised and tightly controlled comedy has degenerated into a grating, anything-goes mess – proving that while Suleiman can certainly tell a joke, he’s pretty hopeless at telling a story.

14th April, 2003
(seen 10th April, City Screen, York)

by Neil Young