At the American Film Institute’s National Film Theater to Feb. 6
Early in Divine Intervention, Elia Suleiman’s latest memorandum from Palestinian Israel, a man playing the writer-director’s late father drives down the street in the family’s hometown of Nazareth, smiling and waving at his neighbors. This is not a moment of solidarity. Under his breath, Dad (Nayef Fahoum Daher) curses every single one of the people he greets.
There are scenes in Divine Intervention that have dissuaded Israeli distributors from handling the film, and which will disturb some American supporters of Israel. Even before it was released here, Suleiman’s movie was controversial; its U.S. distributor, Avatar Films, says the company was discouraged from nominating it for a foreign-film Oscar, on the grounds that Palestine is not an actual country. Yet Suleiman is not an anti-Israel propagandist, and many of his droll vignettes depict the hostility and frustration of Palestinians among themselves. Indeed, during the first part of the movie, it seems as if Nazareth’s limbo-dwelling Palestinians could scarcely find worse antagonists than their next-door neighbors.
Suleiman, a bemused heir to Jacques Tati and Charlie Chaplin, conveys much of this disgruntlement without words: One man matter-of-factly throws his trash into his neighbor’s garden, and another takes a knife to a soccer ball that lands on his roof, while a guy who seems to have wandered in from Ghost World waits perpetually at a discontinued bus stop. Yet the film opens with some kids chasing and attacking Santa Claus—who, arguably, was also born in Nazareth—and soon shifts back to this sardonically fantastic mode. Alerted that his father is ill, the mute, hangdog E.S. (Suleiman) drives to Nazareth from Jerusalem. (In his first feature, 1996’s Chronicle of a Disappearance, the director explained, “I moved to Jerusalem to be closer to the airport.”) Along the way, he casually throws an apricot pit out the window, and it blows up an Israeli tank.
That’s not the most provocative moment in Divine Intervention, a discursive cinematic essay that takes its shape from Suleiman’s notebook-jottings rather than a sustained narrative. The film, which was made before Palestinian zealots began using female suicide bombers, includes a fantasy sequence in which E.S.’s unnamed girlfriend (Manal Khader) turns into a Palestinian ninja, defeating a troupe of dancing Israeli soldiers with a souped-up slingshot and then exploding a helicopter. Most of the clashes, however, are gentler: Stopped at a light, E.S. attempts to mesmerize the Israeli in the next car with Natacha Atlas’ Egypto-techno version of “I Put a Spell on You.” Asked for directions by a pretty French tourist, an Israeli trooper pulls a blindfolded Palestinian from a prison van to assist her. At the checkpoint that’s a recurring location, E.S.’s girlfriend defies the Israeli border guards with no more formidable weapons than Mirwais’ “Definitive Beat” and a tight pink dress.
Despite such moments of playful grace, the film is not as successful as the serenely hilarious Chronicle of a Disappearance. Perhaps it’s because the director’s blend of rueful and wry doesn’t suit these bloodier times, but Divine Intervention is less “a chronicle of love and pain”—as the film’s subtitle has it—than a series of glancing blows.
Nonetheless, viewers who expect Palestinian men to carry machine guns and Palestinian women to wear shapeless head-to-toe sacks will be struck by Suleiman’s Westernized, relatively affluent, and mordantly depicted demimonde. Raised as a Christian, the director lived in New York City for more than a decade, and today he supports something more controversial than an independent Palestinian state: a “secular bi-national” democracy in which Israelis and Palestinians live together as equals. Although the gap between the two may seem unbridgeable, Suleiman’s work suggests otherwise. As more than one observer has noted, the director’s crabby, resigned absurdism is a brand of humor that’s commonly characterized as “Jewish.”
Like the Louvre, St. Petersburg’s Hermitage was in part a royal residence before it became a museum, and those who are inclined toward reverie might well imagine encountering the shades of Peter, Catherine, or Anastasia gliding through its galleries. In Alexander Sokurov’s Russian Ark, we encounter those notables and many more: Some 2,000 actors, musicians, and extras appear in a continuous historical tableau, brought to life not by a spiritualist with a fantastic group discount but by high-definition digital video.
The most extravagant museum tour ever filmed, Russian Ark is a feature-length single take hailed by the New York Times as “the longest unbroken shot in the history of film.” This is probably not true; Sokurov’s shot reportedly lasts 87 minutes, whereas Mike Figgis’ Timecode entails four simultaneous 93-minute takes. Even if not it’s not the longest, however, Russian Ark’s nonstop sequence is certainly the grandest. With Run Lola Run
cinematographer Tilman Buttner hefting the Steadicam, the film follows a 19th-century French diplomat called simply the Marquis (Sergey Dreiden) through time, space, and nearly a mile of hallways, salons, and ballrooms fit for a czar.
The Marquis is less our guide than the tour’s most privileged viewer. When first introduced, he expresses surprise that he’s speaking (and understanding) Russian, and he relies on various people he meets to explain the objects and happenings around him. The Marquis chats to the unseen narrator—who shares the cinematographer’s wide-angle point of view and goes unnoticed by everyone else onscreen—as well as to curators, administrators, and the occasional officious guard. During the sumptuous final scene, a re-creation of the last great ball of the czarist era, the Marquis even gets to dance.
In its day, the Hermitage—and, indeed, the very idea of St. Petersburg—was as vaingloriously nouveau riche as a Montgomery County McMansion, and the Marquis offers some withering remarks about Russia’s copyist culture. St. Petersburg, which turns 300 this year, is a relative upstart among European cities, but the narrator (who is Sokurov himself) defends it and all Russia from the Marquis’ jibes. Peter the Great’s bid to make his country “European” rather than “Asian” is also a recurring conversational theme, discussed between scenes of both Peter and another Great behaving with something less than imperial refinement.
The cameraman/narrator doesn’t follow a strict chronological course. The most recent sequence, a dark evocation of World War I’s toll, occurs before the finale, which is set in 1913. The film makes no direct reference to events after Nicholas II’s 1917 abdication, suggesting that the Hermitage’s historical consciousness concludes with the end of the monarchy. (Sokurov is not hesitant to interpret subsequent events, however: Two films he made before Russian Ark, Moloch and Taurus, are about Hitler and Lenin, respectively.) After Nicholas, the deluge—although in this case, historical oblivion takes the form of drifting snow.
As a cinematic stunt, Russian Ark tops Hitchcock’s Rope, which hid its cuts to simulate a single shot, if not the most elaborately choreographed long-take sequences of Theo Angelopoulos’ The Traveling Players or Miklos Jancso’s Elektreia. In fact, the movement from room to room has the effect of dividing the film into discrete scenes, even without edits. But even though the narrative gimmick proves slight, the technical one ultimately pays off: The film’s final 10 minutes dazzle, as the camera weaves through hundreds of dancers and slips down a teeming grand staircase. When the ballgoers exit into posterity, the effect is almost physically enveloping, but also poignantly ephemeral. CP