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West Bank Story 

From Palestine comes an absurdist look at life under the intifada

Whoever said that "laughter is the most subversive weapon of all" could have been talking about Palestinian director Elia Suleiman's sly and corrosively funny political comedy Divine Intervention. A film-festival favorite both inside and outside the U.S. (it won the Special Jury Prize at last year's Chicago International Film Festival, as well as both a Jury Award and the FIPRESCI Prize at the 2002 Cannes Film Festival), Divine Intervention uses absurdist humor not only to decry the indignities suffered by Palestinians living under Israeli occupation but also to show how people on both sides of the political divide lose their sense of civility and even humanity when living in such circumstances. Don't let the deadpan humor fool you; a volcanic rage bubbles just beneath the surface.

In Arabic and Hebrew, with English subtitles, Divine Intervention has no narrative in the traditional sense. Rather, it is a series of vignettes involving perhaps a dozen people, most of whom don't know one another. The film's opening scene sets the tone for everything that follows. A man, dressed incongruously as Santa Claus and carrying a bag of gifts, scrambles over boulders and through a sparse copse of trees, chased by a band of what appears to be teenage boys. As they all make their way up the hill, it becomes increasingly clear that this is no game. As Santa reaches the top and turns to face his pursuers, the audience sees a knife protruding from his chest.

Cut to a man driving through the narrow streets of his Nazarene neighborhood. He waves and smiles at the passersby, yet under his breath he hurls curses and epithets at each and every one of them. This sequence is intercut with shots of numerous other people who, in their own way, are also engaged in petty acts of hostility. Nearly all of the scenes in the film play out in static, wide shots. The camera remains stationary and the action simply unfolds in front of it.

One man vandalizes his neighbor's driveway so that the neighbor's car falls into a deep rut. Another man stands atop his roof and hurls empty bottles at policemen below. A boy kicking a soccer ball down the street bounces it too high, and it lands on the roof. An old man stabs the ball with a knife. A third man throws bags of garbage into what we presume is his own garden. Only later, when a woman appears and tosses all the bags back where they came from, do we realize that the man has been using his neighbor's yard as his Dumpster.

The film becomes more explicitly political in its second half, which focuses on a character named E.S. (played by Suleiman himself) who never once speaks. With his mournful eyes but otherwise expressionless countenance, he recalls Buster Keaton. E.S. lives in Jerusalem; his girlfriend (Manal Khader, as explosively seductive as Monica Bellucci) lives in Ramallah. Because of Israeli restrictions, the couple is allowed to meet only in a vacant lot that straddles a checkpoint somewhere between the two cities. Sitting in a car, holding hands but completely silent, they gaze out the windshield at Israeli guards making life miserable for Arabs wishing to cross from one side of the checkpoint to the other.

The frustration that has been brewing beneath the story's surface is later ratcheted up another notch -- into a musical fantasy, of all things. It begins with Israeli soldiers practicing their marksmanship at a firing range. Suddenly the men cartwheel into a dance routine that finds them battling a kind of ninja version of E.S.'s girlfriend.

Some audience members will be uncomfortable with Suleiman's vision, unwilling or unable to appreciate the emotional discipline he exercises and the extraordinary wit he reveals in choosing humor to express his anguish. No film may ever match the intelligence and brilliance of Danis Tanovic's 2001 anti-war comedy No Man's Land, which dealt with another seemingly intractable geopolitical problem, the Bosnian/ Serbian conflict. But Divine Intervention comes closer than most in its effective use of humor to make serious political points and, equally important, to convey the gnawing despair that so easily can lead to violence.

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More by Jean Oppenheimer

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