The Never-ending Story between Arabs and Jews gets another wryly humorous workout, marbled with personal sadness and mystification, in “The Time That Remains,” Palestinian Elia Suleiman’s third leg of his long-in-the works trilogy on his people’s place in the modern state of Israel. Inspired by his father’s diaries, and the writer-helmer’s own memories, vignettish pic is both more rigorously fashioned and a lighter sit than “Chronicle of a Disappearance” (1996) or “Divine Intervention” (2002), coming close at times to fringe theater, with Suleiman almost an outside observer. Moderate returns look likely among upscale viewers.
Those expecting a more ambitious, large-scale treatment of the subject — from the initial announcement pic was to be a semi-autobiographical history of Suleiman’s family from 1948 to the present — may well feel let down. “Time” is essentially “Divine” with a more personal and historical edge: A succession of small events, running jokes and ironic observations in the director’s Tati-esque style. Almost perversely, Suleiman avoids referencing most of the key political markers of the past 60 years, holding his focus tightly on a small family and neighbors in his home town of Nazareth.
Framing device (which could be eliminated) has “E.S.,” as he’s billed in closing crawl (Suleiman), taking a taxi from the airport as he arrives in Israel. As the cab gets caught in a sudden thunderstorm, the tone turns mystical as he asks the — rather obvious — question, “Where am I?”
Pic’s five subsequent sections, each about 20 minutes long, are separated simply by fadeouts, with no date captions — though it’s not difficult to guess the periods from implanted info.
Initially, it’s 1948, with Arab resistance falling apart and the mayor of Nazareth — in a scene which augurs the movie’s often tableau-like style — signing an official surrender to the Israeli army. Though several members of his family move abroad (notably to Jordan), Fuad Suleiman (Saleh Bakri, charismatically handsome) still believes in armed resistance, which leads to his arrest, beating and near death.
The immaculate visual style, with every shot geometrically composed and figures always set against either Nazareth’s postcard-pretty lanes or placid, picturesque landscapes, immediately establishes a formalism that’s echoed in the perfs (a bizarre character here, a silent observer there) and use of minimal resources to sketch larger events (a couple of army jeeps, a brief burst of gunfire, a handful of soldiers). This is, in effect, microcosmic theater, ironically playing out scattered moments from an often bloody history of occupation in beautiful, sun-bathed locations.
Second seg shifts to 1970, with Fuad’s young son, Elia (Zuhair Abu Hanna), scolded at school for calling the U.S. “colonialist” and Fuad himself seemingly reconciled to Israeli occupation of his homeland and going on night fishing trips with a friend. Pic succinctly (but also humorously) sketches Israel’s own colonization through a patriotic Hebrew song sung at the school on National Day and the kids being shown the Hollywood Zionist allegory, “Spartacus.”
By now, pic has established a rhythm of repeated scenes and characters — including a mad, foul-mouthed old neighbor (Tarek Qubti) who’s always threatening to immolate himself — which provides some kind of structure to the succession of brief episodes.
As the ’70s wear on, and Elia grows to teenhood (Ayman Espanioli), his inherited sense of injustice leads to him being given 24 hours to leave the country, for some unspecified wrongdoing.
Film starts to develop an emotional pull in the final half-hour, as Elia returns one Christmas as a grown man (Suleiman) to resume his place outside the same corner bar with his mates, and also care for his aging mom (Samar Qudha Tanus). Dialogue, always spare, becomes even more minimalist here — Suleiman himself never speaks — and the helmer’s Buster Keaton-like, hangdog looks provide a silent commentary on the succession of witty sketches, which seem to imply that nothing has changed — or ever will.
As in “Divine,” there’s an uneven quality to Suleiman’s often surreal ideas, but in general there are way more hits than misses this time round, some of them laugh-out-loud. Pic could easily be criticized for lacking upfront political commitment, but there are already enough didactic dramas out there on the same subject to cut Suleiman some slack for his ironic, outsider-ish approach.
Technical package is tops, from Marc-Andre Batigne’s crystal-clear lensing, through the slightly theatrical period design and costuming, to use of source music. Brief effects shots are smoothly integrated. Some trimming of the final modern seg would improve its pacing, which is noticeably more leisurely than the rest of the tightly cut movie.