The Israeli-Palestinian conflict lends itself to farcical treatment. What could be more absurd than two worlds living side by side for so long, and yet unable to coexist?
In Divine Intervention, director and writer Elia Suleiman expands that microcosmic insight into the Israeli-Palestinian conflict with his macrocosmic idea that such head-butting, irresolvable insanity defines the human condition. At a certain point you have to just throw up your hands and wonder about the essential stubbornness of human nature.
The Russians and Eastern Europeans living under Communism developed a similarly acute sense of jagged, head-shaking cynicism about life. Suleiman's Divine Intervention suggests that surreal, here-we-go-again sense of humor also infects the strife between the Israelis and Palestinians.
Little vignettes, often awkwardly cut and pasted together, comprise the narrative of Divine Intervention. Suleiman provides a series of comic and melancholy moments, not unlike a collection of "Saturday Night Live" sketches or live action New Yorker cartoons, and strings them together into a comedy of errors with Middle East politics as its connective tissue.
The barest thread of a story unifies these comic interludes. An Arab man E.S. (played by Suleiman) meets a beautiful woman (Manal Khader) at the Al-Ram border checkpoint to hold hands and exchange lovesick glances as they gaze -- like 1950s teenyboppers at the drive-in -- at the comings and goings down below.
The amorous E.S. proves his love to his lady friend by blowing up a red balloon bearing Yasser Arafat's face and sending it aloft. The Israeli border guards react to the balloon with rage, sure the gesture carries some kind of insult, but not so sure that they don't first check in with headquarters. One of the guards squeals into his walkie-talkie, "There's a balloon trying to get through!" If only more of the jokes in Divine were as hilariously well executed as that one.
More than the religious and cultural divides between Arab and Jew define Divine Intervention. Suleiman's film suggests that human nature tends to embrace war and friction. A man drives through his village and his various neighbors wave as he passes. "Son of a bitch," "son of a whore," he mutters, the insults becoming more inventive and crude as the man encounters more and more of his grinning neighbors, who further enflame his hatred.
Daily wars break out on both sides of the divide over issues as petty as parking spaces and other trivial feuds that threaten to explode into greater violence. We are a world divided, not just by the literal Al-Ram checkpoint shown in the film, but by invisible ones too. Life, essentially, is conflict in Divine Intervention and the Israeli-Palestinian feud only shows that truth writ large.
Divine has a placid, minimalist surface, where small exchanges happen and leave the viewer to figure out what is being represented, or wait until another interlude to figure it out. Suleiman takes a novel approach to his storytelling, yet paces the film inconsistently. Some moments prove richly funny, but others are just inane and obtuse. The individual parts do not always fit together.
Divine's uneven tone obscures the filmmaker's intent in certain scenes. Divine Intervention is an interesting film, but not as profound as it might hope to be. Still, it is refreshing to see a film treat such volatile subject matter with the kind of bemused disbelief it so often inspires.