I like to think of myself as a film buff – a cineaste, even. I subscribe to Sight & Sound; I own the Criterion Collection 5-disc edition of Ingmar Bergman’s Fanny & Alexander ; I have most of Aki Kaurismäki’s films on DVD (although I still don’t know how to pronounce Matti Pellonpää); and I’ve sat all the way through L’Année Dernière à Marienbad (and I agree with those who say it’s “pretentious twaddle”, rather than “genius cinema”).
I’m not a complete film snob, however. Recently, I’ve been working my way through the first, and only, season of Space: Above & Beyond, a military sf television series from 1995. It’s not actually that good – but it could have been so much better. It’s one of those programmes where the writers try to tackle important issues, and do so with some intelligence. But they ultimately fail because the show’s set-up is such rubbish science fiction. In Space: Above & Beyond, Earth is at war with an implacable alien enemy, the Chigs. The show focuses on the members of USMC 58th Squadron. Who are all lieutenants. And not only do they fly fighters, but they also spend half their time fighting as ground troops, or on special behind-enemy-lines missions. It’s no wonder Earth is losing the war – its armed forces are made up entirely of officers. The physics is the usual television sf bollocks – the plot of one episode depends on the fact that the 58th hear an enemy fighter go past their space transport… The astrography is also hopelessly confused, with all the planets in the galaxy seemingly only thousands of kilometres apart.
Oh well. Maybe I am a film snob, after all.
Anyway. I’ve been renting DVDs from Amazon for a number of years now, and my rental list is a mix of classic films, critically-acclaimed world cinema, and the latest blockbusters. Plus whatever else takes my fancy. Back in December, I rented Divine Intervention, a Palestinian film directed by Elia Suleiman. But I was never quite in the mood to watch it. I’ve seen a few Arabic films before – when I lived in the Middle East, I had 25 television channels, but the only English-language ones were BBC News and CNN (Baywatch in Hindi is actually better, by the way). Those Arabic films I did see were badly-acted slapstick comedies stuck in the 1970s. And judging by the trailers I often saw at the cinema for the latest movies from the Egyptian film industry, nothing much appeared to have changed. However, Divine Intervention was released on DVD by Artificial Eye, and I thought it unlikely they would release some dated piece of cinematic tosh. The film, I guessed, was most likely some worthy-but-dull piece of well-meaning world cinema.
So it sat there. Waiting for me to watch it.
Eventually, I did. Last week. And… I’ve been telling my friends about it ever since. Hence this blog post.
The film opens with a group of youths chasing Santa Claus. They catch him, and stab him in the chest. Then it’s a shot of a street in Nazareth from a relatively high vantage point. We watch an old man climb onto the flat roof of his house. He’s carrying a bucket. It contains empty bottles. He stacks these with the hundreds of empty bottles he has already carried up to the roof. For several minutes, we watch him carry bottles up to the roof. A police car, lights flashing, suddenly drives up to the house. The man climbs onto the roof, and pulls the ladder up after him. He starts throwing the bottles at the policemen…
Divine Intervention is a surreal black comedy set in Palestine. Its plot, what little of it there is, centres around an affair between a man from Jerusalem (played by Suleiman himself) and a woman from Ramallah (Manal Khader), who can only meet at the Israeli army checkpoint between the two towns. They do not speak. The film is mostly made up of set-pieces peripherally connected to the two lovers (such as the two described above). Some are inspired; some are less successful. The part in which a man repeatedly throws rubbish on his next-door neighbour’s garden, but is horrified when she throws it all back on his drive, is just so perfectly… Arabic. However, a scene near the end, in which Khader turns wu xia ninja-on-wires and kills half a dozen Israeli militia at weapons practice, seems somewhat too fantastical to be an effective parody.
In an interview on the DVD, Suleiman (who looks disconcertingly like Robert Downey Jr) mentions that he had been told his films resemble those of Jacques Tati or Buster Keaton. There is, I think, some Kaurismäki in there too – in fact, the scene in the welding-shop is almost pure Kaurismäki.
An excellent film. Rent the DVD now. Even better, buy it. I did.