Elia Suleiman is among the few living filmmakers to employ slapstick comedy in his work, and the only one to politicize it. But where his 2002 feature "Divine Intervention" decried his Palestinian family's oppression at the hands of Israeli troops in Nazareth with a caustic, angry satiric bent, "The Time That Remains" strikes a decidedly mournful tone. The third entry in a trilogy preceded by the aforementioned Cannes winner and 1996's "Chronicle of a Disappearance," Suleiman's newest movie about Palestinian suffering (which is actually around two years old) maintains his personalized blend of autobiography and surrealistic polemics while viewing the issue with additional resignation.
Subtitled "Chronicle of a Present Absentee," the film spans four eras. It begins a decade or so before Suleiman's birth, when his father Fuad (Saleh Bakri) opposes Israeli forces amidst the turmoil of the state's formation in 1948. The story then proceeds through young Elia's chaotic childhood, where he witnesses his father's arrest for arms smuggling and gets chided by a teacher for repeating the radical assertions he hears at home. ("Who told you America is imperialist?" an irate teacher asks.)
In the early 1980's, Elia appears as a jaded young adult (Ayman Espanioli) ready to explore the world. The final half hour finds Suleiman playing himself, as he returns to his hometown and spends time with his 80-year-old mother (Shafika Bajjali) in the wake of his father's death. In typical Suleiman fashion, these scenes unfold in a vignette-like fashion, and largely without dialogue or camera movement. Suleiman's self-made universe oscillates between lamenting the details of Israeli occupation to mocking it, sometimes within the context of a single scene.
After a disconcerting opening bit involving a lost cab driver, Suleiman gradually squeezes the tension out of his story, dismantling its initial momentum to haunting effect. Suleiman's deadpan approach creates the sense of drifting along a road to nowhere, particularly because it plays up absurdist contrasts between earlier eras and modern times. The scenes involving his father's lively activist efforts lead into a vision of Nazareth as a kind of ghost town stuck in the limbo created by militant suppression. Wandering his old neighborhood, the middle-aged Suleiman witnesses a young man calmly taking out the trash and chatting on his cell phone, while a tanks's massive gun barrel tracks his every move. In a single puzzled look, Suleiman bears witness to the complacency of a younger Palestinian generation fully integrated into the occupied life.
As usual, Suleiman offers no sympathy for the Israeli POV, reducing the military presence to scowling non-entities. At times it can be frustrating to parse out the specificities of his stance, but the movie clearly functions as a fierce indictment, if not an overt form of resistance. In "Divine Intervention," Suleiman indulged in wild, CGI-enhanced fantasies of opposing the occupation—such as drifting a balloon bearing Yasser Arafat's face into the old city of Jerusalem, or unleashing a gravity-defying femme fatale to deflect Israeli bullets in the movie's penultimate scene. Yet the greatest act of defiance in "The Time That Remains" finds Suleiman standing alone with a pole, poised to vault himself over the wall dividing Israeli and Palestinian lands. This scene was greeted with enthusiastic cheers at its initial screening during the Cannes Film Festival in 2009, but it contains a distinct sadness, as though Suleiman means to conclude with a shrug that no amount of individual dissent can end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
The extended silence lends a dreamlike sensation to the proceedings, which reveals the core of Suleiman's technique. Jacques Tati and Buster Keaton are normally the go-to comparisons when describing Suleiman's work, but his entire trilogy displays a contemporary similarity to the oeuvre of Todd Solondz, another director known for blending comic eccentricity with tragic undertones. (In fact, Solondz's recent "Life During Wartime" could trade titles with Suleiman's latest effort.)
Unlike Solondz, however, Suleiman's most poignant moments are largely wordless. Nothing feels more affecting than Suleiman's ubiquitous frozen stare. Although he never utters a sound, his silence speaks volumes about the inability to resolve the social ramifications of Middle Eastern strife. Little time remains, he argues, for a solution.
criticWIRE grade: A-