A red-suited Santa Claus runs through a sun-lit Middle Eastern landscape, huffing through tall brown grass amid the gnarled trees of an olive orchard and up a rocky terraced slope. He is chased by modern Middle Eastern teens in T-shirts and jeans, their hair close-cropped as if barbered on the cheap, their eyes full of hate. Santa pauses in desperation and throws wrapped packages from his toy bag. The boys kick them aside in contempt and continue their pursuit. At the top of the hill Santa is surrounded. Though he neither screams nor bleeds, he is stabbed in the heart with a butcher knife. We don't see who does it. So begins Palestinian writer-director Elia Suleiman's resolutely metaphorical Divine Intervention, a consciously provocative and deliberately elusive picture that produces only the barest of a narrative and whose arresting scenes never surrender to unqualified meaning.
I might interpret the opening scene like this: Santa stands at once for the collapse of Christianity into materialistic excess and the failure of the West to address the true needs of the vast, impoverished and angry Third World. Santa's baubles cannot begin to appease the fury of Middle Eastern, in this case presumably Palestinian, youth who have not tasted the fruit of the very freedom that has made the West so rich. These Palestinian youngsters are chasing Santa because they despise what he represents even as they yearn for what he represents. So maybe they kill him. But maybe in his panic and his blindness to the Palestinian boys' humanity, he kills himself, as the West may destroy itself by not engaging the rest of the world. You, of course, might read this scene in some other way. And the challenge of discussion and debate might be just what Suleiman has in mind.
The film is largely a series of such scenes. In another one a man rises each morning and takes his day's plastic bag of trash and throws it over a fence into his neighbor's yard. For a time, there is no response. Finally one day, however, a woman throws a dozen or so bags back. When she does so, the man chastises her and calls her shameful. But the garbage she's throwing into his yard is only the very garbage he's thrown into hers, she points out. She's still shameful, the man maintains. Before throwing the garbage back, she should have talked to him. "Isn't that why God gave us tongues?" he complains. This scene, I think, addresses the foundation of Israel. The stateless and disorganized Palestinians voiced few objections when Jews began to settle in the area. But the final establishment of the Israeli state was accomplished through force of arms, though against little resistance and with relatively little bloodshed. In more recent times, as hostilities between Israelis and Palestinians have escalated to horrific proportions, the Jews have sought the high moral ground of negotiation without ever acknowledging their own role in the roots of the dispute. But again, others might see nothing so comprehensive in this scene, and some might find offense in Suleiman's reduction of the long sad situation in Israel and Palestine to a metaphor about trash.
Insofar as Divine Intervention has a narrative core, it centers around the story of two West Bank Palestinian lovers who live on either side of an Israeli checkpoint on the road between Jerusalem and Ramallah. The checkpoint makes their getting together difficult and sometimes impossible. Often, when they do get together, they sit holding hands and watch the routine harassment of their countrymen by frightened, but sometimes abusive Israeli soldiers. One night a (perhaps drunken) officer relieves the regular checkpoint squad and proceeds to torment a line of Palestinians needlessly. He makes them wait for no reason. While subjecting them to questionable searches, he critiques their clothes. Finally, he will allow them through the checkpoint only if they first play musical cars and drive across the arbitrary border in vehicles belonging to someone else. The security rationale for why the Israelis have established these checkpoints is not acknowledged: to try to diminish the wave after wave of Palestinian violence. But the scene makes clear that the casual humiliation the checkpoints inflict may be as much a cause of the violence as its solution.
At the film's end, an Arab-Ninja Wonder Woman defeats a corps of Israeli commandos, first by pelting them with rocks from a slingshot (think David and Goliath), and then by deflecting their own bullets back on them (what goes around, comes around). That this martial figure is played by the same beautiful actress (Manal Khader) who portrays the determined lover at the checkpoint suggests the ways in which the on-going conflict is radicalizing even those who merely wanted to pursue romance. This film isn't somber in the way, for instance, The Pianist is somber. But in the end, it is very, very sad. Its title summons the hand of God to resolve what humans seemingly cannot.
- Elia Suleiman watches the problems balloon inside the Middle East in his metaphorical Divine Intervention, which screens this week and next at Zeitgeist.