Thursday, May. 14, 2009

The Time That Remains: From Palestine With Laughs

If you're a Palestinian, the one thing you can safely smuggle through Israeli checkpoints is a sense of humor. That has been Elia Suleiman's most devastating weapon — the others are steely compassion and an eye for painterly compositions — in his subtly subversive comedies Chronicle of a Disappearance (1996) and Divine Intervention (2002), which have played at festivals and in art houses around the world. His new film, subtitled Chronicle of a Present Absentee, is a family epic related in vignettes that span the history of Israel's occupation of Palestine. Politics aside, or for that matter included, the movie is a tart delight, and one of the few unalloyed treats on a mostly wan Cannes slate.

Set in Nazareth, where Suleiman was born and raised, and based on his father's diaries and his mother's recollections, Remains is split into five sections. In 1948, his father, played by handsome Saleh Bakri, from The Band's Visit, 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 1960, young Elia is now 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 explosion of Israeli and insurgent bombs.

From this recipe for incendiary propaganda, Suleiman makes a buoyant comic souffle. If there's a message, beyond the understandable 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 business. In this middle-class neighborhood — and one of the lessons to take from Suleiman's movies 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.

At the Israeli-run school Elia attends, a teacher sternly interrogates him on his political beliefs: "Who told you America was imperialist?" Another teaches provides a running commentary during a classroom screening of Spartacus; when Kirk Douglas and Jean Simmons exchange a forceful kiss, she explains, "Girls, he's like her brother." At assembly, the children sing a wistful anthem: "Tomorrow we will build what we dream of today,/ And if not tomorrow,/ Then the day after." More than 60 years after they lost control of their land, they may still be singing it.

Each shot is pristinely framed, imposing droll order on political and social chaos. You know that, even if a bomb goes off, the unmoving camera is not going to get the Parkinson's shakes of modern action moviemaking. There's the same furtive comic styling in the performances, especially that of Suleiman (he plays his adult self), who has a dour demeanor and rarely speaks, like a Semitic Buster Keaton. And like Keaton, he can stir himself to action. In one scene he holds a long pole, runs toward the high wall separating Palestine from Israel and vaults over it — powerfully, gracefully and of course fictitiously. The movie is the testament of a man and a nation rendered impotent by events. But they can dream, can't they?

This deadpan comedy also packs some emotional power. As Elia comes home the last time, essentially to ease his mother's death, he playfully engages in a game of hand-tag while they're watching TV. As she sits on the terrace of their home, he brings out a CD speaker and plays one of her favorite old Arab pop tunes. Mother and son listen as the woman's nurse does a karaoke rendition of the love theme from Titanic. A rare nonlethal explosion — a display of fireworks — lights up the evening sky, giving the old woman one last, simple pleasure. In her hospital bed, as Elia attends her, Mother clutches a photo of her late husband.

Laughter and tears are the most personal response to a movie; they can't be legislated by directors or critics. So take this review as one man's happy response to The Time That Remains. Others may find the film too austere, too reliant on silent images. Suleiman has an answer for that. "I find silence very cinematic," he says in the press notes. "It is a moment of sharing, and of participation. It is the spectator's privilege to put this silence into words...." My word for this film's silences: eloquent.