Sound of Silence
From fairy tales, on through the bulk of literature, and to TV and films, we get spoiled and expect non-plastic art-supposedly-mirroring-life to have its neat Aristotelian beginning, middle and ending. We have come to expect Meaning, even though there may be diametric disagreement as to what that "message" says. For we speak of Art, which theoretically brings order to the chaos of life.
What, then, is to be made of Divine Intervention? Palestinian writer-director-"star" Elia Suleiman does his homework, he insists, but then leaves script and preconceptions at home. Personally, he speaks of a "tickle" of inspiration, of "tableaux within tableaux," of "magic [and] poetic image that unexpectedly mix [when] you have to be totally sincere." "Democratic" is his word – non-political and for each spectator "according to his own sensibility."
Suleiman’s wonderfully effective, funny and yet horrific film announces its bizarre take on things from the initial scene. A stumbling incongruous Santa Claus (George Ibrahim) is shown being chased up a cactus- and cedar-covered hill overlooking Nazareth, and the audience laughs as the fat man loaded with presents is cornered, until he turns to reveal a meat-cleaver stuck in his chest. (Does he die? Wheelchaired in a hospital, unjolly half-dressed Santa is later glimpsed in a throwaway shot, but this is a different actor: another of Suleiman’s "anecdotes" is that the original one turned out to have one lung and could not negotiate the climb.)
Using minimal dialogue, a handful of joyfully obscene monologues, and novice actors and non-actors whose characters have no regional, ethnic names but are Everymen and -women – E. S. (the director himself), the Woman (Manal Khader), the Jerusalem Neighbor (George Kleifi), Soldier (Menashe Noy), Friend (Salman Nattor) – Suleiman mortars together a surreal, moving mosaic of coincidence and non-sequitur. Like the two wordless friends who drink tea on a rooftop and watch mundane but outrageous behavior, we, too, observe, and in the end it all makes sense – not from mere repetition of scenes (often in threes) but because there is, again in the director’s words, a "progression."
Coherence comes, not from the logic of the insanity of our world, but with the frightening, fascinating reality of dream. Reactions are wildly disproportionate; characters show up, scenes reappear, characters reappear, and suddenly it holds together. There is an implied Tati-esque discrepancy between what men say and what they actually do – "Neighbors should respect one another," intones the deadpan man caught flinging garbage into another’s walled garden. Or words are ill-fitted to situations, too strong or else inadequate – "There’s a balloon trying to get through [a checkpoint]. Can we take [machine-gun] it down?" One single slow tear appears only when onions are sliced.
But silence does not mean there are no words to be said; severely emotionless faces do not mean there are no emotions to be felt. A violent ninja-movie takeoff does not mean that real people are not displaced, suffering and dying in this Holy Land where a knife-wielding hejab’d Palestinian woman is the billboard ad-target for shooting ranges.
The ironic title -- Deity decidedly does not intervene -- trails its subtitle, A Chronicle of Love and Pain; these two latter emotions indeed go hand in hand, although man’s state is such that he will not fully understand. While perhaps some will choose to see the film as pro-Palestinian, Suleiman actually manages to avoid what he terms such "political baggage." As with pointillism, Impressionism, Lichtenstein/comic-book art, a complex mosaic, one must gather a certain distance, step back a pace or so. The separate parts and vignettes cohere, the grand picture emerges: this area of Earth, perhaps all of it, has descended to madness; logic cannot flow; the center does not hold. Worse, people – flesh and-blood – suffer, in silence, in pain, uncomprehendingly. Yet somehow, in some mysterious miraculous manner, they survive. Divine Intervention invests its men and women with a dignity and stoicism even madness does not efface. With humor, sympathy and horror, the film reminds us that we have, despite it all, survived.
(Released with English subtitles by Avatar Films; not rated by MPAA.)