Palestinian director Elia Suleiman's autobiographical blend of sardonic humor and bitter poetry provides fresh insight into the suffering of his countrymen since the birth of Israel in 1948. Using a locked-down camera and deadpan staging, he externalizes the mindset of Palestinians long estranged from the land where many of them still live. This wonderful film is based on the diaries of Suleiman's father and is broken up into vignettes that span the decades. It's mordant and slightly absurd, a tragedy that begins with Elia as a boy and resolves with him as a silent, helpless, older man stuck in eternal limbo. Suleiman's standing in world cinema should result in better than average coin.
The Time That Remains concludes the trilogy that began in 1996 with A Chronicle of a Disappearance and continued with Divine Intervention, which won the Jury Prize at the 2002 Cannes Film Festival. The Time That Remains is the best of the lot. Style and tone are consistent with the previous two, but here the story is more linear and the scope is larger. The Nazareth-born director has appeared in all three films, sporting a hangdog expression and sense of melancholy that invokes Buster Keaton. Suleiman plays a taxi passenger in an ill-fitting prologue that soon gives way to the first sweetly amusing, slightly satirical vignette. (After this he disappears until the end of picture.) This initial chapter takes place in 1948, as the Palestinian mayor of Nazareth officially surrenders to the Israelis. Elia's father Fuad (Saleh Bakri) stays in town manufacturing guns for the armed resistance. His attempts to evade capture are unsuccessful and the section ends on a bit of a cliffhanger.
Even more than Divine Intervention, the formalism Suleiman employs here provides a unique emotional entry point into the Palestinian dilemma, one that uses static shot composition and humor to clarify and comment, not to generate cheap laughs. At times, the symbolism is both funny and incisive. Twice, an Israeli photographer unknowingly sticks his behind into the faces of Palestinians, an absurdist representation of the propaganda efforts that, according to Palestinians, have kept the West firmly on the side of Israel. This is especially meaningful in the second segment, which takes place in 1970. Here, the young Elia (Zuhair Abu Hanna) attends a local school where he must sing songs of Israeli patriotism. Meanwhile, Fuad is accused of arms smuggling and hauled away when gunpowder is supposedly found underneath Elia's bed.
The power of Suleiman's approach is its lack of political proselytizing or vengeful anti-Israeli point-scoring. He does work in some rioting and bits of resistance news via radio and TV broadcasts. Otherwise politics is just a constant background hum. Really, this is the story of a boy (and, by extension, a people) sitting at the station for over half a century, waiting for a future that's stalled on the tracks. That sense of stasis defines Suleiman's visual style, as it also defines Elia and Fuad. Older and greyer as the film moves along, Fuad's passion still burns even if the power to act upon it succumbs to realities on the ground. In the final segment, Elia plays himself, returning home at Christmastime to attend to his elderly mother. Some shots in this segment are brilliantly trenchant, as when an enormous Israeli tank gun follows a Palestinian man as he takes out the garbage. Towards the end, Suleiman even introduces the slim possibility of détente (or maybe an acknowledgement of shared humanity) when Israeli police try to break up an after-curfew dance party, only to sit in their patrol car and ever so slightly bob their heads to the music.
In interviews, Suleiman is very articulate about his films and his people. In The Time That Remains, as with Divine Intervention, he speaks not one word of dialogue. Instead, his baggy eyes take in views that haven't changed since he was a boy. He stands forlornly in doorways or stares into the empty middle distance, ever the outsider, growing old as his country remains in a socio-political coma. Chaplin himself might approve of the emotion Suleiman wrings out of his visit to the hospital to see his mother (played by his real mother). Her profile against a background of fireworks shows us explosions being used to celebrate and honor, not destroy.
Suleiman's films, of which The Time That Remains could be his most satisfying, are mirrored by those of Israeli director Amos Gitai (Carmel). It can be argued that his films are to Israelis what Suleiman's are to Palestinians. Both directors are exclusively associated with the Arab-Israeli conflict and their humanist approaches bust through increasingly stale narratives. Most importantly, they force viewers to look beyond a never-ending, hopeless present towards a future where both sides can live in peace and, sometimes, dance past curfew.
Distributor: IFC Films
Cast: Elia Suleiman, Saleh Bakri, Leila Muammar, Yasmine Haj and Tarek Qobti
Director/Screenwriter: Elia Suleiman
Producers: Michael Gentile and Elia Suleiman
Running Time: 109 min
Release Date: January 7 ltd.