Always imaginative, often arresting, but sometimes just too clever by half, “Divine Intervention” is a movie of memorable moments rather than a cohesive, involving feature. A collection of character vignettes hung around the story of two Palestinians who tryst by an Israeli checkpoint, this second feature by Palestinian director Elia Suleiman observes life under Israeli “occupation” with a festering resentment dulled by an emigre’s detached irony.
Subtitled “A Chronicle of Love and Pain,” pic is tailor-made for Western festivals and special programs, where movie buffs and the political intelligentsia will nod approvingly at its sophisticated wit, its filmic references and its bold cinematic strokes. Compared with the two other films from the same region at Cannes this year, “Divine Intervention” at least has some kind of passion and a recognizable political viewpoint, unlike Amos Gitai’s ponderously artsy, middle-of-the-road “Kedma.” However, unlike fellow Palestinian Hany Abu-Assad’s “Rana’s Wedding,” with its fully drawn characters and involving structure, Suleiman’s pic is more like a cinematic scrapbook.
In fact, the first three reels, set in Suleiman’s hometown of Nazareth, are virtually a Middle East version of Otar Iosseliani’s recent “Monday Morning,” with a succession of almost-silent vignettes that build into a rondo of eccentricity. A man dressed as Father Christmas is chased up a hill by some youths; another man waits for a bus that isn’t coming; another stacks empty bottles on his roof and later uses them to hurl at the police; and another throws his garbage sacks into a neighbor’s garden.
This opening is also not so far from that of Suleiman’s previous feature, “Chronicle of a Disappearance” (1996), and though often very witty in its payoffs, is just starting to pall when helmer pulls an explosive surprise that sets the pic on a more overtly political tack. Suleiman himself plays E.S., first seen motoring to a hospital where his father (Nayef Fahoum Daher), one of the characters in the preceding section, is recovering from a heart attack.
Switching locations to the Al-Ram checkpoint between Jerusalem and Ramallah, Suleiman then pulls another jaw-dropping set piece, as he introduces E.S.’s girlfriend (Manal Khader), a stunner who can literally topple the towers of war. She’s from Ramallah and he’s from Jerusalem, so the two meet in a parking lot next to the checkpoint and silently caress hands while they (and the audience) observe the goings-on.
The couple’s meetings — like the plot device in “Rana’s Wedding” of having to get married by 4 p.m. — are simply an excuse for a succession of checkpoint sequences, which show the Israeli soldiers as either half-wits or bullies. The Palestinian sweethearts simply stare blankly at events as they unwind, with a kind of mute condemnation.
“Mute” is, in fact, the operative word for the film, which is largely made in the spirit of a modern silent movie. Imagine Jacques Tati tackling the Palestinian problem, and you’re halfway there. Sometimes, Suleiman’s ideas work spectacularly well — as in the sequence of a red balloon festooned with Yasser Arafat’s smiling face floating across the Jerusalem cityscape and coming to rest on the Omar Mosque, a Muslim holy of holies.
Other times, his flights of fantasy seem to belong to a separate movie — as in one f/x extravaganza of a Palestinian female ninja taking on a bunch of gun-carrying Israeli commandos. However, in both that and the balloon sequence, CGI effects work is top drawer.
Sometimes, the simplest ideas are the most effective, as when E.S. tries to stare down an Israeli in an adjacent auto while Arab music blares out of his car stereo. Such moments of suppressed, helpless rage — expressed by the wild, emotional music — are among the most powerful in the pic.
At the end of the day, however, as in “Chronicle,” Suleiman proves an adept, often very witty cataloguer of contradictions and foibles but remains an armchair raconteur with no cohesive arguments of his own. “Divine Intervention” is an entertaining, good-looking confection that pushes all the right buttons for sympathizers of the Palestinian cause without actually getting its hands dirty. Perfect fare for Euro fests, in fact.