The great stone face of contemporary cinema, Palestinian writer-director Elia Suleiman typically presents an amusing, Buster Keaton-ish view of the world's absurdities. Not the whole world, mind you, but the hopeless predicament of Palestinians in the Occupied Territories. Suleiman's triumphs, Chronicle of a Disappearance and Divine Intervention, used dryly savage humor to comment on Israel's seizure of Palestinian homes and lands (in 1948 particularly, but also since the Six-Day War of 1967) and to depict Palestinians living in a kind of suspended-animation limbo.
Those fine films were distinguished by a low-key, deadpan tone -- the cinematic equivalent of a shrug, though with a bit more anger below the surface -- that mocked the Palestinians (clinging to delusions of one day returning to their ancestral homes) as well as the Israelis. But the chuckles are in short supply in Suleiman's latest, as befits its pessimistic title. The Time That Remains depicts people going through the motions and living out the string, without enthusiasm or even awareness.
The film draws on Suleiman's family history in Nazareth, and glides from 1948 to 1970 to 1980 to the present. It portrays, in increments, the degrees by which his father's strength and will are gradually drained by the Israelis and the Occupation. Even the young Elia is stifled and shut down emotionally, and forced to leave the Middle East as a teenager, finally returning years later. Needless to say, Suleiman's family is meant to represent the broader Palestinian population.
Much of the numbness and inertia that plagues the characters is expressed through Suleiman's precise and classic filmmaking. He eschews camera movement, constructing his scenes from carefully composed sequences of static shots. The characters are fixed in their environment, circumscribed by their apartment or balcony or town square. Even when they leave the frame, we know they aren't getting away.
There are a variety of American movie references -- a clip from Spartacus that's shown in Elia's grammar school class, a man whistling The Godfather theme, a picture of Marilyn Monroe on a cab driver's visor and, under the end credits, Yas's remix of the Bee Gees' Staying Alive -- that Suleiman uses partly for ironic laughs but to underscore the Palestinian propensity to embrace illusions.
The greatest illusion of all, of course, is statehood. But it would be far too unsubtle -- nay, crass -- for this filmmaker to come out and say that. Suleiman's great gift is the ability to craft a polemic into art. It says more about the dead-end state of affairs in the Occupied Territories than it does about the filmmaker that the comedic bits in The Time That Remains come off as half-hearted.
The Time That Remains plays February 4-10, 2011 at SFFS Screen at the Sundance Kabuki Cinemas in San Francisco. For more information, visit sundancecinemas.com.