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You’d have to know a lot more about Palestine than I do to fully appreciate Divine Intervention (Yadon Ilaheyya), an absurdist Palestinian comedy from director Elia Suleiman. But even with no knowledge of Palestine, one can appreciate many of the segments of poetic comedy in this film.

Scattershot Fragments

Holding hands at a checkpoint is as romantic as it gets
Holding hands at a checkpoint is as romantic as it gets

By American standards, Divine Intervention looks slapped-together. The opening scene has Santa Claus running from a pack of wild children in the scrubby desert of Nazareth. The first twenty minutes show us the crazy comings and goings of several neighbors. And at the climax, Suleiman introduces a bizarre, fantastic scene featuring a Palestinian ninja.

But Divine Intervention is not an American movie, and there seems to be a method to Suleiman’s madness that accounts for some of the scattershot shifts in focus. And in the center of the film is something like a coherent story.

Much of the movie follows our protagonist, identified only as E.S. in the credits, and played by the director. He falls in love with a woman from the wrong side of the checkpoint. They can only meet at the stop between Jerusalem and Ramallah as she is not allowed to pass. At this military checkpoint, in their parked cars, all they can do is hold hands.

Humor Is Surprise

Divine Intervention is not as good as the sum of its parts. There are flashes of comic brilliance worthy of Jacques Tati or the Zucker brothers. But taken as a whole, the movie is unfocused and too politically driven.

For those unfamiliar, Jacques Tati made movies that observed the humor in human habits. In Divine Intervention, we can see Tati in the neighbors who bicker over two inches of driveway space, or in the cop so impressed by a pretty girl that he pretends to be friends with his prisoner.

As for the Zucker brothers, Suleiman shows a tank blowing up in a sudden, explosive fireball as the apparent result of merely dropping some trash. E.S. takes it in stride, like Leslie Nielsen at his peak, not even flinching at the destruction he seems to have inadvertently caused.

Caution: Political Humor

But these jokes don’t exist in service to a story. Some of them feel wedged in to a movie that doesn’t really have room for them. Others have political metaphors behind them, which makes one more cautious about finding humor in them.

The neighbors fighting over the driveway space might be a metaphor for Israel and Palestine’s fight over disputed territories. The Israeli cop distracted by the pretty French girl has a (presumably Palestinian) prisoner in his paddy wagon. The cop can’t give her directions because he doesn’t live here, but the prisoner can because this is his neighborhood.

At face value, these jokes are funny. But the Israel-Palestine situation is so sensitive that I hesitate to laugh. If anything makes it okay to laugh, it is the knowledge that the jokes are told by an Israeli Arab — a citizen of Israel with the religious and cultural background of Palestine. If he can find humor, perhaps there is hope for the rest of us moving past political correctness and toward real dialogue.

Broaden Your Horizon

Divine Intervention may be too culture-specific for Americans like me to fully appreciate. I’m sure there are references and jokes that were completely lost on me. But the jokes about human nature are well observed and funny, and anything I didn’t understand sent me looking for information in my atlas and on the Internet.

Divine Intervention will not be seen by most Americans, and most probably wouldn’t enjoy the fragmented style. But those with a taste for truly international film — for example, those who know Jacques Tati — should give Divine Intervention a look.