Chronicle of a Disappearance (1996), Divine Intervention (2002) and The Time That Remains (2009)
At "Mapping Subjectivity: Experimentation in Arab Cinema from the 1960s to Now, Part I"
October 28-November 22 at MoMA
The affectless deadpan Jim Jarmusch introduced in Stranger Than Paradise and its subsequent evolution into one of the dominant modes of arthouse film—static shots celebrating drabness and desolation, protagonists for whom every facial expression should be avoided like anthrax, a depressed drollness—may not initially appear a natural fit for a Palestinian filmmaker whose main subject is simmering violence and frustrated romance in time of occupation. But Elia Suleiman's loose trilogy of occupation comedies politicize the international language of deadpan. At their center is Suleiman himself, a hangdog mute center of calm (or impotence) in a world filled with people much angrier. They have to live there, after all; Suleiman (who's lived in New York, Paris and Berlin in his academic career) is always just a returning visitor.
Reliable motifs link 1996's Chronicle of a Disappearance, 2002's Divine Intervention and last year's The Time That Remains (opening here theatrically in January). Besides Suleiman himself, there's his parents (themselves in the first film, acted by others for their life stories in Time) and cars. Besides menacing Israeli soldiers, automobiles are his biggest preoccupation: in the absence of a crossable border, their care and upkeep (men spend a lot of time hanging out in very serious pro garages) are very important. That immobility makes tracking shots (or camera movement of any kind) a moral issue for Suleiman, even more so than in Godard's maxim: when he moves, it's probably in heightened reaction to violence or a rare moment of escape. The two can be interchangeable.
Chronicle is the most conventional of the films in certain ways; its opening shot, slowly circling a dark form whose beyond-Gordon Willis darkness eventually reveals a human form, pretty much says it all (how to remain human when unseen and so on). Alternately obvious in its still funny ironies (jet-skis on the Galilee and other tourist profanations) and obtuse in certain particulars (in all three films, certain symbolism is so obviously local you have to let it pass), it's a slightly becalmed work, rarely more than gently funny, its narrative less an afterthought than a mildly unsatisfying evasion.
The same can't be said of Divine Intervention, which is fully accomplished aesthetically and moderately problematic in the death wish department. Its big set-piece (a divinely protected woman flat out destroying an Israeli commando unit Matrix style, a stylish musical sequence of cheekily symbolic destruction, with bullets forming an angelic halo around the woman's hijab) is a cult favorite on YouTube; you could argue that contextless endorsement of the segment isn't Suleiman's fault, but it's not like the surrounding film changes the meaning much. It's an unambiguously angry film, leading to some hilariously unmotivated pettiness (a man puncturing a boy's soccer ball when it lands on his roof, another digging a hole in his neighbor's driveway to mess up his car), and it's not unfair. But whether Suleiman is dreaming cheekily of violence or not, it's got a charge that unnerves.
The Time That Remains returns to Suleiman's parents again, this time going through their entire courtship, which spans modern Middle Eastern history; the recreations of military actions aren't funny (you'd have to have even more nerve than Suleiman to try), but unflinching depiction of ugly history isn't Suleiman's strong point. Though he returns to his standard style in the present-day last third, it's not a natural fit; the anger's already overwhelmed the humor. Together, the three films—separated by six and seven year gaps, an almost even amount of time for Suleiman to retrench and think of a new approach—complement each other nicely; what they can't do is solve the problem that produced them.