You Know How to Whistle, Don't You?

"You know you don't have to act with me, Steve. You don't have to say anything, and you don't have to do anything. Not a thing. Oh, maybe just whistle. You know how to whistle, don't you, Steve? You just put your lips together and... blow." - Lauren Bacall, To Have and Have Not

Wednesday, May 04, 2005

Movie review - Divine Intervention

Divine Intervention, subtitled “A Chronicle of Love and Pain”, is at first glance less somber than its title indicates. Unlike Bloody Sunday, 2002's other great film about occupation, it presents its politics indirectly, through absurdism, allegory, and vivid imagery. Divine Intervention chronicles the irrationality and injustice of daily life in Palestine without recourse to simplistic dichotomies of right/wrong, Palestine/Israel, Arab/Jew. Director Elia Suleiman relies instead on black humor and mordant wit to communicate the love and pain that a people feels for itself and its land.
Suleiman largely forsakes narrative and characterization, choosing to construct a film out of vignettes depicting life under occupation–– the restlessness of men and women with nothing to do, the fierce arguments that break out at the slightest provocation, and the omnipresent distrust in communities where collaborators might be (and often are) everywhere. The main characters in the film are E.S., a film director (played by Suleiman); the woman, E.S.’s lover and the symbol of Palestine (Manal Khader); and his father (Nayef Fahoum Daher). Their everyday stories of lovers' meetings, separations, and illness are intertwined with sardonic fantasy sequences. E.S. eats an apricot while driving, then tosses its pit onto an Israeli tank, which explodes. During one of many scenes at a checkpoint, he releases a red balloon bearing a picture of a grinning Yassir Arafat. The soldiers radio frantically to their superiors asking whether they should allow the balloon to pass, but it passes by them anyway, floating over Jerusalem and hovering around the Dome of the Rock. In the most extended sequence, the woman appears as a Palestinian ninja fighter at an Israeli military training camp, wearing a crown of bullets and fending off attacks with a shield shaped like a unified Palestine. After vanquishing the soldiers, she leaves their commander shellshocked and mystified, standing in the middle of a Palestinian flag painted in the dust.
Although these sequences are overtly political, the film is not a polemic. Suleiman’s stories contain every form of defiance–– violence, magical powers, verbal confrontations, and depictions of the powerful as ignorant fools–– but his visions of defiance are not empowering. Retaliation, real or imagined, goes nowhere when it takes place only in fragmented incidents, among people who cannot work together. The unpredictability of a fractured, threatened community is summed up in the film’s final shot of a steaming pressure cooker in E.S.’s family home. The characters and their relationships all are trapped, warped by endless cycles of confrontation, suspicion, and betrayal. For Suleiman, divine intervention is both an escapist fantasy and the only rescue for Palestine and her people. While Americans may miss many of the film’s subtleties (I certainly did), Suleiman’s controlled yet wildly imaginative style, arresting visuals, and tight techno soundtrack succeed in expressing his message to all audiences. Divine Intervention is a masterful, witty, provocative depiction of current and age-old conflicts.
Originally published March 27, 2003.


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