Palestinian writer-director-actor Elia Suleiman’s “Divine Intervention” is a brilliant comic cry of pain, a surrealistically piercing protest at what its maker sees as brutal oppression and chooses to attack with satire rather than rocks or bombs. You may well disagree with its political premises, but will find it difficult to deny its cleverness and power.
The picture isn’t a narrative, but rather a series of artful sketches that speak to the helplessness and futility that Palestinians feel under what they perceive as Israeli occupation. There’s a linking device–the repeated romantic meetings of two Palestinians, the man played by sad-faced Suleiman himself, near an Israeli watch-tower, and the same fellow’s reaction to a heart attack which has sent his father into the hospital (a microcosm of how the filmmaker sees the Palestinian situation as a whole, of course)–but most of the picture is devoted to largely wordless, unconnected vignettes comparable to the sort of thing that Jacques Tati used to specialize in. But the Frenchman’s visions, though often barbed in their view of modern culture, were essentially benignly humorous. Suleiman’s, by comparison, have real anger and resentment behind them, however perversely funny they might be. The bizarre unleashing of a balloon with Yasser Arafat’s face imprinted on it over the Jerusalem skyline has a weird, unsettling power, and episodes depicting how Palestinians abuse one another in their inarticulate rage–a man repeatedly tossing his garbage into a neighbor’s yard (and taking offense when his victim returns the favor), another nastily puncturing a kid’s soccer ball, a third belligerently demolishing street repairs to frustrate others’ ability to pass, an unexplained drive-by arson–are both hilarious and poignant. On the other hand, there are moments when things don’t quite come off. An elaborate sequence in which a painted target for Israeli sharpshooters turns into a Matrix-style female Ninja who dispatches all the gunmen is well staged, for example, but it goes on too long and as a result comes off as obvious.
Despite a few stumbles, however, overall the level of invention here is high, and Suleiman’s everyman appearance makes him an appropriately tragicomic Buster Keaton figure. “Divine Intervention” will undoubtedly infuriate some viewers, but for others it will be a bracing piece of political satire.