Making light of too-serious subject

Movie Review

March 01, 2003|By Michael Sragow | Michael Sragow,SUN MOVIE CRITIC

SUN SCORE

**1/2

Elia Suleiman's Divine Intervention is over-intellectualized slapstick. This movie wants to be a mad comedy in every sense - mad-crazy, mad-angry, mad-with-grief, and maybe even Mad magazine-ish. But it lacks the infectious Dadaesque hilarity of the Marx Brothers and early Woody Allen, the beautifully orchestrated fury of Stanley Kubrick in his Strangelove days, and the ticklish precision of Jacques Tati and Samuel Beckett.

Director Suleiman intersperses dry, attenuated vignettes, set in Nazareth and Jerusalem and on the road between that city and Ramallah, with crowd-pleasing shock tactics. Striking absurdities like a Santa Claus dashing from a gang of boys, spilling presents as he runs, blend with barbed depictions of banalities - on a Nazareth street all the neighbors see is a familiar fellow waving in a car, but the audience hears him cursing them out under his breath. At best, the movie offers a privileged glimpse of middle-class Palestinian life. Too bad Suleiman's comic methods are labored and ultimately pedantic.

Whether dealing with neighborhood squabbles over trash-dumping and parking spots or charged themes like political informing, Suleiman chops absurd behavior into drawn-out blackout sketches - only to provide punchlines that are usually too dead-on to carry comic punch. For example, Suleiman films the fire-bombing of a pleasant-looking house. He builds on the saturnine ambience, showing the home owner calmly putting out flames with an extinguisher. The director continues the deadpan gag with a machine-gun shooting out the windows. Then, flat-footedly, he reveals the victim is a Palestinian collaborator paid off by Israelis with a fancy new car. The arc of incidents is neither funny enough to stand up as black humor nor piercing enough to catalyze fresh thinking. The movie contains a handful of crackling jokes, but, generally, inspiration is in even shorter supply here than love, peace and understanding.

As the movie gradually comes into focus, the guy cursing out his neighbors turns out to be the father of the Jerusalem-based film-director hero, E.S. (played by Suleiman himself), who is struggling to pull together a wall-full of note cards for a script. After his father collapses, E.S. spends much of his time visiting him in a Nazarene hospital and holding hands with his girlfriend (Manal Khader) in a parking lot at the Al-Ram checkpoint between Ramallah and Jerusalem - because she lives on the West Bank, she can't enter Jerusalem. Increasingly, Suleiman counterpoints instances of Israeli oppression with sequences of whimsy and wish-fulfillment, climaxing with a chorus line of Israeli commandoes literally dancing their way into a showdown with a Palestinian Wonder Woman in black robe and checkerboard kheffiyeh.

As an actor, Suleiman has a weathered, sympathetic presence. As a writer-director he's woefully erratic. In what has become the movie's trademark image, his alter ego sends a red balloon emblazoned with a portrait of a smiling Yasser Arafat floating over the checkpoint and into Jerusalem. It's clever for a Palestinian-French coproduction to nod sardonically toward that French children's classic, The Red Balloon. But on the whole, this movie goes over like a lead one.

Divine Intervention

Starring Elia Suleiman and Manal Khader

Directed by Elia Suleiman

Released by Avatar

Unrated

Time 92 minutes

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