If Elia Suleiman’s face were a cartoon, then the single short, white brush stroke dabbed into his black hair would perhaps be the beginning of a thought balloon, perpetually forming above the left eyebrow. One after another, ideas pop loose from that creased forehead and float through his new movie, Divine Intervention.
His image of his hometown, Nazareth: the place where Santa Claus got chased down and killed. His picture of his father, late in life: a man who sits at the kitchen table, endlessly sorting a pile of mail. His notion of Palestinian romance under Israeli rule: a rendezvous at a highway checkpoint, where lovers separated by the Green Line meet in a car for an orgy of handholding. His metaphor for freedom: a balloon decorated with a life-size drawing of Yasir Arafat’s head, released from the West Bank to drift over Jerusalem.
Like a silent comedy–like Suleiman’s 1996 debut feature, Chronicle of a Disappearance—Divine Intervention is made up of an expertly timed series of such wordless, deadpan scenes. They make you recall that a gag is something that either incites laughter or else stifles speech. Not that the characters in Divine Intervention are entirely mute. The father (Nayef Fahoum Daher) can let loose an obscene, ear-scorching tirade against his neighbors in Nazareth, all the while waving a friendly good morning to each; an Israeli soldier at the checkpoint can decide to act like the emcee of an insane game show, in which Palestinian contestants must follow whatever instructions he shouts through a bullhorn. Language usually hurts in Divine Intervention. For laughter, and imagination, and maybe even hope, Suleiman needs to keep quiet, even though his silence is heavy with longing.
You will notice that his face seems older than its 42 years–older than the face of an American look-alike and contemporary, such as Robert Downey Jr.–with the jowls softening below the unmoving soft lips, the liquid eyes starting to droop beneath that hyperactive expanse of forehead. It must weigh on the flesh, to be a real Palestinian but have only a potential Palestine. Certainly a weight of some kind has brought down his father, who’s come to lie in a hospital ward. (Of course, in a Palestinian hospital, everybody smokes, doctors included. This, at least, you can’t blame on the Israelis.) And yet the smooth-faced love of E.S.’s life–the wonderworking woman (Manal Khader), the handholder–looks so fine that soldiers stand dumbfounded at the roadblock, helpless to stop her legs from scissoring past in a white Paris dress.
That’s how E.S. imagines her, anyway. As he did before, in Chronicle of a Disappearance, Suleiman has claimed the movie’s sadness and slapstick for himself, while making a woman responsible for all its beauty, vitality, worldly wisdom and effective political resistance. I assume he knows this choice is old-fashioned and romantic, in a Chaplinesque way. Out of love for Chaplin, who knew something about dispossessed people and what movies might do for them, I’m willing to play along–especially since the coolly self-assured Khader actually carries off the role.