Masterpiece on Demand

Elia Suleiman's new film is one foreign movie getting wide release — on 50 million TVs

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Marcel Hartmann

Suhair Abu Hanna as E.S. as a child, Samar Qudha Tanus as Mother (1970-1980) and Saleh Bakri as Fuad, star in Elia Suleiman’s The Time that Remains

When movie critics wax rhapsodic about a picture outside the mainstream, especially a foreign-language film, they do so with impunity. Virtually no one will argue with them, because few will take the trouble to see the quirkier movies they recommend. Specialty films typically play in only a few big cities and the hipper college towns; audiences susceptible to the discreet charms of an exotic new movie might wait to watch the DVD at home. Thus a critic's enthusiasm has the muted impact of one hand clapping.

I might throw the full bulk of my critical authority behind the following declarations: Elia Suleiman's The Time That Remains is one of the finest films of the past few years; it's set in the director's hometown, Nazareth, and takes the form of a family biography that spans the 60-plus years of Israeli occupation; it's dry and sly and tender and kind of epic; and it's now playing at one small theater in Manhattan before a slightly wider release in a few weeks. And you, dear, adventurous, moviegoing reader, are welcome to reply — if I didn't lose you at Palestine or Suleiman — that you won't be flying to New York City on my say-so.

Now, however, movie fans no longer have that excuse. The Time That Remains is watchable not just at the IFC Center in New York but also in any of the 50 million homes whose TV service's video-on-demand function carries offerings from IFC or Sundance Selects. Rainbow Media, the parent company of both, releases a half-dozen films a month, each for less than the price of a typical movie ticket ($5.99 to $9.99). While most of these films do get a theatrical release, many — like the award-winning miniseries Carlos, the art-world documentary The Art of the Steal and that ultra-odd horror film The Human Centipede — find more viewers on TV than in theaters. In a time of contracting business for all but the most widely heralded foreign and independent films, this is a chance to catch art-house fare in your own house.

Comedy During Wartime

No film is more deserving of finding an audience than Suleiman's. Born in Nazareth in 1960, he has worked in Paris and New York, and his films (1996's Chronicle of a Disappearance and 2002's Divine Intervention) display the conflicting influences of French movie minimalism and American silent comedy: Robert Bresson meets Buster Keaton. But Suleiman's wit is also the hopeless mirth of an occupied people. If you're a Palestinian, his films suggest, the one thing you can safely smuggle through Israeli checkpoints is a sense of humor.

Based on his father's diaries and his mother's recollections, The Time That Remains is split into five sections. In 1948 his father joins the ragtag opposition to the invading army. (When he is captured and ordered to give information before the count of 10 — or he'll be shot and killed — he immediately says, "Ten.") In the 1960s, Elia is part of the family, a restless kid in an Israeli-run school. In the 1970 and 1980 episodes, Elia is a young man returning home from stays in the U.S. and France. The final section shows him caring for his aged mother amid the occasional explosions of Israeli and insurgent bombs.

From this recipe for incendiary propaganda, Suleiman makes a buoyant comic soufflé. If there's a message, beyond the one that an oppressed people should be free, it's that folks on either side of an occupation eventually learn how to go about their lives. In this middle-class neighborhood — and one of the film's lessons is that there is a Palestinian middle class — a local man paces back and forth across a quiet street as he talks on a cell phone; in front of him is a huge Israeli tank, whose gun turret is pointed at him, moving as he moves, stopping when he does. Nobody shouts; nobody shoots; life, absurdly and doggedly, goes on.

Inside the droll satire, Suleiman packs some emotive power, especially while comforting his dying mother late in the film. A nonlethal explosion — a display of fireworks — lights up the night sky, and the old woman gets one last pleasure.

The joys of The Time That Remains are plentiful and deep — well worth a click of the remote to video on demand. By the film's end, there'll be two hands clapping.