Film Review

Divine Intervention
reviewed by
Antonio D. Sison
Katholieke Universiteit Nijmegen


Vol. 7, No. 1 April 2003

Divine Intervention 

[1] It is easy to hate Elia Suleiman's Divine Intervention.

[2] If anything, it seems to have a keen sense of the very filmmaking blunders guaranteed to goad audiences to zone out. For one, there is no narrative structure in the film. It is a clumsy mosaic of incomprehensible vignettes portraying real and imagined life in an arid middle-eastern region. I mean, who on earth wants to be repeatedly inflicted with the uneventful image of a man waiting for a bus that is never coming. Then there is the matter of pacing. In the Hollywood universe where "Average Shot Length" (ASL) can go as fast as an eye-blinking 1.8 seconds (as registered, for instance, by Alex Proyas' 1998 sci-fi Dark City), Divine Intervention meanders in a measureless, feverish pace. The characters do not compensate for the ennui-inducing crawl as they are either unexplainably grumpy or as emotionally desiccated as their barren environment. And for that decisive blow, the film's unapologetic Palestinian bias is an ideological tinderbox that will surely cause not a few theater walkouts. In one satirical scene, E.S., the character played by the director himself, placidly drives along eating a peach, and when he flings the pit out of the car window, it blows up an Israeli tank on the side of the road.

[3] But if Divine Intervention is a film fettered by the malaise of its own fragmented universe nobody cares to relate to, maybe that is the point. That said, I suggest that the key to unlocking the film is to wear special 3-D glasses, the optic of Palestinians inside Israel. What we can see from Palestinian eyes, precisely, is a confused mosaic of subjugation and collective punishment; an over-extended desert experience with no oasis in sight. For Palestinians, there is a theocratic occupation that needs to be ended but every empirical evidence points to the contrary. Yes, it is waiting for a bus that will never come. Unless.

[4] Unless God's hand moves in their favor - "divine intervention" - answers to their long-drawn history of disempowerment in the face of occupation are not forthcoming. The feverish pace and emotionally-challenged characters then make sense, they work to map the festering national humiliation of displacement and stasis. Violent allusions notwithstanding, the film stops short of promoting a programmatic jihad on Israel. I find it noteworthy that the violent scenes occur on a different level of meaning, in magic realism, rather than in real time and space. When a beautiful woman (Mahal Khader) is shown in a melee with armed Israeli troops, for instance, she magically deflects bullets by spinning and flying ala Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, and, almost laughably, counter-attacks by pelting the soldiers with stones in a modern re-appropriation of the David and Goliath biblical episode. Freedom in the film remains an elusive utopian wish and this is eloquently highlighted in one poignant scene when E.S. releases a balloon imprinted with the smiling face of Yassir Arafat. The balloon floats past a checkpoint of frenzied Israeli soldiers, travels across the city landscape, and finally lands atop Al Aksa mosque on the temple mount. The Arafat balloon, standing-in as a subversive symbol for the wounded hope of liberation, hovers atop the city Palestinians live in but cannot call their own, while the balloon landing atop the mosque is an emblematic reiteration of the running theme- possible wish-fulfillment only through divine intervention.

(5) I propose that a methodical appreciation of the conjoined thematic and stylistic conventions of Divine Intervention is conceivable by exploring its undeniable kindredness with the research category known as Third Cinema. The classification refers to films that express the will to national liberation through ideologically-determined cinematic codes. Among others, the notable titles of Third Cinema include Memories of Underdevelopment (Cuba/Tomas Gutierrez Alea, 1968), Xala (Senegal/Ousmane Sembene, 1974), and Perfumed Nightmare (Philippines/Kidlat Tahimik, 1976).*

(6) To be sure, a Third Cinema analysis of Divine Intervention will not win more fans for the film. It just offers a window to understanding Palestinian cinema better and perhaps, on some modest level of reality, turn some of our hatred into respect.


* For a more detailed discussion on Third Cinema and Perfumed Nightmare, refer to JR&F vol. 6, number 1, 2002 April edition.


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