Divine Intervention won the Grand Jury Prize at the Cannes Film Festival–which puts it in company with such films as David Cronenberg’s Crash and Manoel de Oliveira’s A Carta. The juries seem to have a penchant for the difficult and the obscure. (A Cartawas never released in the U.S.) Palestinian director Elia Sulieman has created in Divine Intervention a skillfully and intelligently made film, mixing absurdist imagery and a highly original style into a parable that is darkly satirical. On the negative side, the film will be somewhat confusing to those less than fully familiar with the territory and it will disturb others who may find its anti-Israeli stance difficult to accept.
Sulieman also stars in his film, playing a character named "E.S" who lives in Jerusalem and is in love with a beautiful woman who lives in Ramallah. Between the cities is an Israeli checkpoint. The couple rendezvous in a parking lot overlooking the checkpoint, staring straight ahead, stroking hands, but no more. Literally, of course, there doesn’t seem to be any reason they couldn’t visit on one side or the other; the woman’s beauty so blinds the Israelis that she crosses on foot without being challenged. Sulieman uses the image of the separated lovers to suggest a people divided by an occupying force. The Israeli border guards are made out to be incompetents, easily distracted or, in one case, a bully and a thief.
But Sulieman is no kinder to his own people. In a series of interlaced scenes he shows a man repeatedly throwing his trash into his neighbor’s garden. When the neighbor finally retaliates, the original offender righteously objects, "Neighbors should respect one another!" There are a variety of other petty disputes and complaints which seem to preoccupy the locals. And a pair of older men who look like Tweedle-dee and Tweedle-dum observe the goings on silently, doing nothing. Another neighbor collects empty bottles on his roof, useful for throwing at the police or for puncturing the soccer ball of a passing boy. There’s a funny vaudeville-like sequence of a tourist in Jerusalem asking the way to a sight; the policeman doesn’t know, but he gets a blindfolded prisoner from the back of his truck to provide the directions.
E.S.’s father, who lives in Nazareth, is seen obsessively looking at his stack of mail, moving letters from one pile to another as he drinks his coffee. He is at the center of strange goings on–a neighbor gets beaten, a fire bomb is thrown in the driveway. Ultimately, he suffers a heart attack. (Never has there been a film in which so many characters smoke so many cigarettes; it’s a wonder they don’t all have heart attacks.) And, in the current vogue for the meta-movie, E.S. is observed structuring the plot for his film on a wall of carefully arranged Post-Its.
In a final episode that spins into the surreal, the Woman morphs into a flying ninja Super-Woman who juggles live grenades and eradicates Israeli soldiers with a flick of her hand.
With the barest minimum of dialogue and a talent for the telling visual image, Suleiman creates a sense of the sheer madness of people living in constant conflict. He spins out his tale with biting irony and an unusual combination of grounded reality and quirky fantasy, occasionally slipping into puzzling obscurity. If Divine Intervention occasionally lapses into propaganda, at least it does so with a sense of humor.