Thursday, April 28, 2011

The Time That Remains

THE TIME THAT REMAINS                         B+                  
aka:  Chronicle of a Present Absentee
Palestine  France  Belgium  Italy  Great Britain  (109 mi)  2009  d:  Elia Suleiman

Except for the Middle East landscape, you’d swear Aki Kaurismäki was smuggled out of Finland to make this film, using that droll deadpan humor, the dark, acid wit, frequent sight gags, cleverly repeating motifs, and characters who rarely if ever speak, but Suleiman only uses Kaurismäki's trademark fades to black when there are significant time shifts all coinciding with a historical event instead of after every shot.  Not as dark or bitingly sarcastic as his last film which uniquely dealt with the comic absurdities of border disputes, as this remains comic but also ads an element of poignancy, taking a much more far reaching and personal scope, reaching into the narrative of his own family history, using his parent’s diaries and letters to comment upon the outrageous conditions resulting from the historical Arab-Israeli conflicts since the Israeli’s started occupying what was his Palestinian homeland in 1948, offering highly personalized portraits of life in Nazareth, now part of Israel, and the Palestinian city of Ramallah on the West Bank.   Maintaining its subversive tone throughout, there’s a stronger sense of urgency in the earlier footage of Elia’s father Fuad, Saleh Bakri, the handsome young Egyptian officer from THE BAND’S VISIT (2007), initially seen following the eyes of a beautiful neighborhood girl as she’s driven away in a car, one of many families that escaped the occupation altogether. 

Fuad is also seen sitting outside a street café with other resistance men carrying machine guns on their laps calmly sipping their coffee in a scene that could just as easily be the Sicilian mafia.  When a heavily armed freedom fighter runs past, the soldier is confused how to help, starting off in one direction and then the next, learning the armed conflicts were resolved almost immediately, so eventually discovering he’s an Iraqi they offer him food and companionship.  As the Israeli army approaches Nazareth, many Palestinians stripped out of their uniforms, dropped their weapons and fled.  The Israeli’s coolly wore the left behind Palestinian uniforms into town waving their flags where many who greeted them warmly were shot dead on the spot, which was followed by the official terms of surrender being offered to the Mayor to sign, where he can remain in power, but all guns are surrendered and the Israeli’s determine any sense of national emergency.  After his arrest, where an unrecognizable man in a hood identifies him to the Israeli military commander as the local metalworker who makes guns, we see him placed with others blindfolded, hands tied behind their back awaiting interrogations, images that strongly resemble Abu Ghraib or Guantanamo, yet as he gets brutally beaten, there’s an eerie peacefulness to the pastoral beauty, especially the view of the ancient, terraced city that lies peacefully nestled in the valley below.       

In 1970, the Palestinians were chased out of Jordan, coinciding with the death of Egyptian President Nasser, which is being viewed on the television by Fuad, now having married the woman (Samar Tanus) seen leaving town earlier, and together they have a son (Elia) who sits quietly nearby, never uttering a word throughout the entire film, but we get the point of what he was subjected to.  In one of the more comical motifs, the little kid is called out of class for a private dressing down by the principal (the movie poster) who can’t figure out where he learned that America was a colonialist and an imperialist power, views directly in conflict with their teachings, where each time Elia is sent home from school carrying a plate of lentils from his Aunt Olga, which he is seen throwing in the garbage upon entering his home.  Aunt Olga makes periodic pronouncements to the family about what relative she’s seen on TV, eventually becoming nearly blind.  An all Palestinian children’s choir receives accolades and awards from the Israeli’s for successfully crossing the cultural barrier and singing patriotic Hebrew songs, all captured in photo shoots using a background of a dozen Israeli flags.  In one of the strangest sequences, the kids are amusingly subjected to an Arabic subtitled movie screening of Kirk Douglas in SPARTACUS (1960), the story of a rebellious Roman slave leading a violent revolt, as if that will raise their captive spirits.  The family also has an elderly neighbor who continually douses himself with kerosene, followed by a spew of choice expletives describing life under the Israeli’s, where Fuad, after putting out his own cigarette, is calmly seen removing the all but worthless matches from his hand and leading him back to his home.  

Ten years later, Elia, something of a free thinker like his father, flees the country, moving in 1980 to Ramallah, where he can be seen sitting in a café outside smoking and sipping coffee with several other elderly gentlemen.  Just out his window images can be seen of Palestinian kids throwing rocks at the Israeli soldiers, where both sides stop their fighting to allow a mother with a baby stroller to safely cross the street before starting up again.  When the Israeli’s berate her to “Go home,” she offers a quick retort, “Why don’t you go home?”  Amazingly at one point an Israeli tank rumbles down the street, stopping at the house across the street where a young man crosses the street to take out the garbage, then crossing back, with the tank’s gun pointing at his head with every step, following his every move until he stops at his door and takes a cell phone call, casually talking to friends about a dance later on that evening, completely oblivious to the threat.  As Elia ages, the Arab resistance feels less of a sense of dire urgency, as if they’re all out of options except to simply ignore the Israeli presence as much as possible.  In something of a daydream sequence, Elia successfully pole vaults over the everpresent wall dividing the two worlds, but he can’t make it disappear.  Choosing a tone of strength from the bonds of family closeness and personal resiliency, Suleiman buries the bitterness of the past.  There is an eerily quiet sequence when Elia returns home to his aging widowed mother, as neither utters a word, yet these are the most poignant scenes in the film, which also do seem to accurately reflect the voice of the Palestinians.  They are a people without a country who have no voice.  At one point fireworks explode in the skies, but neither pays any attention, as there is nothing to celebrate, no more hollow victories, only each other.  

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