Divine Intervention review: Palestine's first Palme d'Or nominee still resonates

Elia Suleiman's award-winning 2002 film is screening in Dubai as part of Reel Palestine's Permission to Narrate festival

A handout movie still of Divine Intervention by Elia Suleiman (Courtesy: Dubai International Film Festival) *** Local Caption ***  AL07NO-DIFF-DIVINE.jpg
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Want to understand the complexity of the Palestinian experience? By all means, turn to art. But don’t expect that art to hold your hand, least of all the films of director Elia Suleiman.

To put it lightly, his films can be a bit difficult to explain in simple terms. Each of them is slow-moving, made up of mostly interlinked vignettes, ranging from heightened surrealism to everyday absurdity – from grand statements to fleeting observations.

His movies are primarily set in the West Bank, following several characters as they struggle to deal with life in occupation. If they have a protagonist, it’s Suleiman himself, who appears in each one, never speaking a word.

He never needs to speak, you’ll find. These are films that show rather than tell. And the more you watch, the more you realise how much he has to say.

Take one scene in Divine Intervention, his 2002 masterwork, for instance. In it, a European tourist in Palestine wanders over to an Israeli police car for help. She’s lost, she laments, and needs directions to a local attraction.

The Israeli officer is excited to help her but realises quickly he doesn’t know the way. He has an idea, however, and ventures to the back of his vehicle to pull out a blindfolded Palestinian prisoner, who cheerfully gives her routes to her destination, his eyes still covered.

Like the best gags, it’s rich with truth. From one angle, it’s an observation on indigenousness. The policeman is a supposed authority in a land he’s wholly unfamiliar with. Meanwhile, the Palestinian man is so deeply at home that he can give directions sight unseen.

From yet another perspective, the joke is on the tourist, who accepts the absurd situation instantly and selfishly, never questioning or protesting against the obvious injustice she’s witnessing as she carries on her own journey.

We meet these characters again later in the film. This time, even though the truth has been revealed to the tourist, nothing has changed – she still returns to the Israeli authority for help. But now he can provide none, because the Palestinian prisoner has slipped from his grasp without him realising it.

Divine Intervention was divisive when it was released, as critics at times struggled to grasp the points that Suleiman was making with his comedic vignettes. That’s partially because he makes so many, in such variance.

Some scenes contain clear, broad political commentary on the Israel-Palestine relationship. Others are more personal, as Suleiman grapples with the death of his father, or dramatises the basic annoyances of everyday life.

At face value, that can make the effort seem as if it lacks focus. But the film’s comedy, big and small, all has the same aim.

Suleiman explained this in a 2002 interview with The Guardian: “I think that [viewers] learn about Palestine when they laugh. They become a little bit Palestinian, just by that."

Divine Intervention is not an essay – it’s a diary. It’s a window into one man’s soul, at times sharply focused and other times disassociated. There’s love and pain, often simultaneously. There’s trivial anger and righteous fury – fleeting fantasies and stark realities.


Starring: Elia Suleiman, Manal Khader, Amer Daher

Director: Elia Suleiman

Rating: 4.5/5

And it's a landmark in the history of Palestinian film, in more ways than one. Twenty two years ago this week, it became the first film from the nation to compete for the Palme D’or at the Cannes Film Festival, eventually winning the jury prize from a group led by director David Lynch.

For many across the world who watched it after that success, the film was likely the first time they viewed the world through Palestinian eyes.

That itself is a political act, as the opposition has long worked to erase that perspective from people's minds.

Watching it in the context of the continuing devastation in Gaza, it still feels as vital as ever.

Divine Intervention is playing on Friday and Saturday at Cinema Akil in Dubai as part of Reel Palestine's Permission to Narrate festival

Updated: May 17, 2024, 6:02 PM

Starring: Elia Suleiman, Manal Khader, Amer Daher

Director: Elia Suleiman

Rating: 4.5/5