In her newest re-view, Bri Lafond revisits this “dark but hopeful” 2002 Palestinian film.
When I first saw Divine Intervention (Yadon ilaheyya) at age eighteen, I went into the experience as an attempt to culture myself. Growing up in California’s Inland Empire, I was used to being the brunt of many jokes about ignorant rednecks and entrepreneurial meth dealers, so my first year out of high school, I attempted to better myself by reading bigger books, taking an overload of community college classes, and by going to independent and foreign movies when I could. Again, this being the Inland Empire, I usually had to drive upwards of an hour to make it to a theater playing such cultured fare, but, by some fluke Divine Intervention screened at a small, local movie theater. I dragged a few friends with me to go see it, a movie I’d read a few blurbs about online. The film was getting a lot of buzz as it was a Palestinian piece, and there was some debate about the fact that the movie couldn’t be nominated for many film awards — including the Oscars — as it came from a country that many other nations failed to recognize as a country.
Now, I don’t know what the film’s Oscar chances might have been, but I do know that I liked it very much.Divine Intervention is a profoundly strange movie. There’s a quixotic sense to the film, moving from random scene to random scene until repetitions set in, then differences in these repetitions. What initially feels like a series of haphazard vignettes ends up weaving itself together.
In the opening scene, a man dressed as Santa Claus (or perhaps it’s Old Saint Nick himself), wearing a broken wicker backpack leaking presents, runs up a rocky hill while a half-dozen young men chase after him. Santa reaches a building at the top of the hill, the young men close in on him, and when the camera again frames the jolly old elf, he staggers backward, a butcher knife buried deep in his gut. A caption announces that this is Nazareth.
Next we meet an old man driving his car through the narrow streets of a Middle Eastern city—still Nazareth? The people he passes wave to him, he waves back to them with a smile, but all the while, the old man mutters obscenities about those around him. “What a fucked morning… What a pimp… What an asshole… Son of a bitch…”
Now a quick succession of scenes. A man stands at a bus stop; another man comes out his front gate to announce to the first man that “there is no bus;” the first man makes no sign of acknowledgment. An older man climbs a ladder onto a roof; he deposits empty beer bottles from a bucket he carries into a large collection of other empty beer bottles on the roof. A middle-aged man opens his mail at the breakfast table with a cup of tea and an egg in front of him. Back to the man with the beer bottles. Down on the street below his house, a car attempts to drive up a curve, but part of the roadway has crumbled. The car’s passenger gets out to direct the driver up the hill. They drive on.
What does it all mean? Well, repetition begins to set in, and we see that what at first appeared completely random is part of a larger system. Two Israeli security officers appear at the house of Mr. Beer Bottles. As they park their jeep in his driveway — next to the crumbling, curving roadway — he climbs back up his ladder to the roof, then begins angrily chucking the bottles at the officers. The officers drag the old men off in their jeep. Two old men sit in a nearby yard, placidly watching the whole scene. The Israelis send a contractor to repair the crumbling wall. Later, Mr. Beer Bottles returns home. Immediately upon arriving, he grabs a sledgehammer, breaks down the newly-repaired wall, then goes back inside, presumably to start collecting more empty beer bottles.
There are many narrative threads like this. The first third of the movie consists of these vignettes: small scenes of domestic life, each with something subtly sinister about them. In this city caught in the middle of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the tension is palpable.
The middle third of the movie is the story of a man and a woman in love. The man’s father — the man eating breakfast and opening mail in the film’s opening scenes — is in the hospital after a heart attack — probably from eating too many eggs. In between visits to his father, our unnamed protagonist meets up with his lover as often as they can. The two live on opposite sides of an Israeli military checkpoint, so their meetings are sporadic and furtive.
Finally, with the help of a red helium balloon with Yasser Arafat’s face on it, the couple are able to distract the Israeli soldiers long enough to get through the checkpoint together. However, it seems that the young woman is more devoted to defending the Palestinian cause than the young man, so she leaves him in order to fight back against the Israelis.
The film is largely without dialogue; in fact, the primary male and female protagonists speak no dialogue whatsoever. Despite the lack of dialogue, the movie is engaging, with a strong sense of style. The aforementioned Yasser Arafat balloon — rendered in CGI — tours the city of Jerusalem to an electronic beat, dancing around the Dome of the Rock. When the female protagonist decides to take on the Israeli army, she turns into a Muslima superheroine, fighting against a group of Israeli officers who fight as a cheesily-choreographed boy band.
Despite its heavy-duty setting, Divine Intervention is a fun movie. Its perspective is dark, but ultimately hopeful: though the Israelis are portrayed as villainous, they are more the buffoon-type villain than the irredeemable Nazi-type of villain. Maybe that’s small praise, but for one of the first depictions of Palestinian life from a Palestinian auteur—a way of life that is still rarely depicted—this is a lovely one.
My favorite of the opening vignettes is still Mr. Beer Bottles, but the best of his antics is when a child accidentally kicks his soccer ball into Mr. Beer Bottles’ yard; Mr. Beer Bottles stabs the ball with a knife, then throws it back at the boy.
The female Israeli officer we only ever hear over the radio strikes just the right chord of sinister, yet bitchy.
I can’t believe the kid with the soccer ball has the nerve to come back by Mr. Beer Bottles’ house. And to send his father twice to beat up the poor old man.
I remember being so worried about what it was the men with the metal pipes were beating to death: three men beat at something on the ground with all their strength; another man comes down to meet them with a gun and fires at the unseen object being beaten. After a beat, one of the men uses two of the pipes to lift a dead snake off the ground. They proceed to set it on fire with far more gasoline than required. SYMBOLISM!!!
We meet our male protagonist driving to see his father in the hospital. He tosses the pit from a date out his car window, it hits an Israeli tank, and the tank blows up in a fantastic explosion.
The music in this movie is great. I love Amon Tobin’s “Easy Muffin” which plays during the couple’s meetings in a car near the security checkpoint. The two have some pretty intense “hand sex” during these scenes. “Hand sex” as in their hands come together, their fingers weave through one another, their palms meet, then separate. It’s very sexy. With hands.
One of the more humorous — but really effed up — moments in the vignettes is when an Israeli policeman tries to impress a cute European tourist asking for directions. Not able to direct her himself, he pulls a blindfolded prisoner out of the back of his cruiser, has the prisoner give her directions to the Holy Sepulcher, then pushes him back into the car.
Another fun scene is when the heart monitor in the protagonist’s father’s room begins to blare, indicating failure. But he’s fine: he’s merely disconnected himself for the nightly smoke break in which everyone in the hospital — doctors, nurses, and patients alike — gathers together to smoke cigarettes in the hallway.
The woman — Manal Khader — is strikingly gorgeous. I’m surprised she hasn’t found more work over the past ten years since this movie debuted.
One of the hands-down best moments in the movie is when the male protagonist—pining for his missing lover — finds himself stopped at a stoplight next to an Israeli man with pro-Israel propaganda plastered all over his car. The protagonist puts on sunglasses, plays a tape of Natacha Atlas’ truly amazing cover of “I Put a Spell on You,” and stares the man down.
The male protagonist’s attempt at resistance is only bested by the female protagonist’s super powers in the stylish comic book-cum-music video in which she takes on a contingent of six Israeli soldiers, plus their friends in a helicopter. Spoiler alert: She kicks their collective asses.