Original review featured on The Doha Film Institute website.
The film starts with a scene where a Santa Claus is fleeing from a gang of youths armed with knives. Consecutive images follow an undefined plot: A man who checks his mail regularly has a heart attack. His son visits him in a hospital full of smokers, and regularly meets a woman separated from him through a checkpoint – the same Israeli checkpoint she decides to later blow up… Simply, ‘Yadon Ilaheyya’ (‘Divine Intervention’) is about life under Israeli occupation.
As much as the plot seems strange, since its release the film has been subject to major controversial debates. It was granted the Jury’s Prize at the Cannes Film Festival, but was refused permission to run for the Best Foreign Language Film category at the Oscars because “Palestine is not a state we recognise in our rules”, said the Academy.
But what marks this film, besides its controversy, is the experience of watching this provocative picture away from the dramatization of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. You won’t find what you’re used to seeing in films talking about the Middle East: it goes beyond, taking you into a political satire ruled by imagination, born from frustration and leading the whole situation into a stagnant and poignant reality.
With the complexity of the situation in the Middle East, what else could be more effective than instability… and that’s what makes the film worth watching. Maybe with bitter smiles, comes enlightenment.
The director, Elia Suleiman, plays the main character of the film. He doesn’t speak and doesn’t react, as if dragged down by the nothingness of everyday life as an Arab Palestinian under occupation. He is a witness, transparent but effective. Most of the scenes are wittily hilarious, but after a few moments, we notice that the scene is continuing, and our laughter is dispersed into a reflective state as we become the witness. Images get more powerful because we are left to analyse – like the hospital full of smokers, and neighbours tossing garbage over each other’s walls. This could be a hint to a self-destructive society, which is also highlighted by the constant neighbouring fights over trivial matters; or it could be a sign of hopelessness due to the inability to control reality, and thus focusing on distracting oneself with banalities. No matter how you see the different sequences, the interpretation remains that of the viewer, allowing the projection of oneself into the image to make our own scenario.
This non-narrative imagery uses little words and separate scenes under the umbrella of absurdity, yet we keep returning to these scenes to see how the situation has developed, where repetition becomes an assertion of the bitter reality. The inclusion of surreal symbolic scenes, both funny and dark, transmits the director’s message with a smile on our face, like the scene where the floating balloon with Yasser Arafat’s picture on it is blown up to distract Israeli soldiers, allowing a couple to drive together into the checkpoint. This image is as absurd as the situation of this Palestinian couple; from the same country, but unable to meet at ease.
One of the signature scenes of the film is an elaborate sequence in which a painted target for Israelis turns into a Matrix-style female ninja, who kills all the gunmen in a very well-choreographed superwoman scene. This scene is visually striking and totally fantastic, but is actually wishful thinking and suggestive of a dream sequence.
The film uses situational comedy versus expressionless characters. You can feel them escaping their reality through their imagination, and that becomes their only consolation.
The film’s minimalism and silent comedy reminds me of Jacques Tati’s films. It is without a doubt an effective way to use humour, as a surreal protest and a cry of pain to a brutal reality. He attacked with satire and made his words more effective than bombs.
Suleiman experimented in this film and the results are rewarding. It is a visually absurd journey into the life of Palestinians, set within their daily tasks: simple stories, told with minimal dialogue and dark humour. A must see film.