Mr. Hulot's Intifada

Absurdism captures the pain of occupation.

AFTER THE HATE-MAIL campaign to which I was subject for panning the documentary Gaza Strip recently, I know to expect silence for praising the considerably more sophisticated, fanciful Divine Intervention (which runs Friday, Feb. 21-Thursday, Feb. 27 at the Varsity). As long as the review seems P.C. to all those anti-Zionist newsgroups, no one will write in outrage. But what my previously irate e-mail correspondents fail to understand is that there's a difference between a good cause, which the Palestinians' is, and a good film, which Gaza is not. Happily, in its humane, absurdist wit, Intervention succeeds on both counts. It's a work of fiction, of course, far-removed from Gaza's in-your-face CNN atrocity reel. It's also a profoundly personal film by writer-director Elia Suleiman, one that initially seems to have no political argument to make.

In fact, as its first act begins in Nazareth, Intervention makes no sense at all. You're completely lost in random deadpan vignettes that are like Jacques Tati in Arabicexcept hardly anyone speaks. Neighbors feud and bicker with all the bored petulance you'd expect of prisoners. They've got nothing better to do. A guy stabs a kid's soccer ball; a man lobs trash into his neighbor's yard; a wall is mended and knocked down again. You wonder if a narrative will ever emerge.

Then somebody drops to his kitchen floor with a heart attacka grouchy old welder whom we've previously seen constantly sorting his mail at the kitchen table. He's taken to the hospital, where a somber soulful-eyed man shows up, played by director Suleiman himself. The watchful younger fellow is never named in the film (the closing credits identify him as E.S.), and he never once speaks, but his arrival marks a shift in the picture from absurdism to autobiography.

GRADUALLY IT EMERGES that E.S. is the son of the old welder and a film director, who covers the walls of his comfortable Jerusalem home with Post-it notes of movie scenes. Some bear scribblings ("Father Falls Sick") that reflexively bear upon what we've already seen (and will see); some are enacted as fantasy sequencesan apricot pit becomes a grenade; a sexy woman in a pink dress defeats a squad of soldiers just with her indomitable strut. Like Fellini and 81/2, Suleiman is recasting his life as a movie; yet he occasionally shuffles the order of the notes as if unsure which way Intervention should proceed and how it should end.

Meanwhile, E.S. keeps visiting this parking lot at a military checkpoint between Jerusalem and Ramallah, where he sits in his car with a woman (played by Manal Khader with cool poise) who arrives from the occupied territories. They hold hands in silence but do nothing more. It seems they can't consummate their love, like Eloise and Abelard, since they live on opposite sides of the border.

INSTEAD OF SCREAMING slogans or waving bloody shirts, Suleiman has made a sly, subtle, and compelling film about the psychological effects of occupation, implying that the quarrelsome Nazareth residents are being driven mad by this divide within their homeland and psyche. And E.S. is being driven mad, too, in his own quiet fashion. He fantasizes about getting together with his girl; he fantasizes about miraculously defeating the IDF, but he knows these movies are never going to get made.

Suleiman treats the Israelis more with wry ridicule than scorn. The soldiers at the checkpoint behave as irrationally as the Palestinians in Nazareth: When E.S. releases a red balloon bearing the face of Arafat, they freak out and call H.Q. for orders.

Intervention isn't an angry film that simply blames the Israelis for everything; the tone is more rueful and sad. Specifically, it's about the death of Suleiman's own father (to whom the film is dedicated). More generally, it's about a Palestinian worldview warped by occupation but distilled through an erudite, aesthete's imagination.

The only time E.S. seems close to snapping is at a traffic light next to an Israeli whose car is covered with right-wing stickers. He puts on his shades and cranks up his stereo. The tunepart of a great soundtrack rich with cool Arab technois a cover by vocalist Natasha Atlas of the old Screamin' Jay Hawkins classic, "I Put a Spell on You." It's a perfect, haunting motto for those on both sides of the checkpoint.

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