Saturday, April 2, 2011

Goodbye to All That

of a Pres-
ent Absen-
2009, 35mm,
105 mins.)

In his films, Arab-Israeli director Elia Suleiman (Chronicle of a Disap-
, Divine Intervention) blurs the lines between fact and fantasy.
It's part of what makes his work so enjoyable, despite the fact that all
three, part of a trilogy, focus on the conflict in the Middle East (and if
he hailed from Belfast, I don't see how he could avoid the Troubles).

Where other filmmakers see doom and gloom, he sees irony and ab-
surdity, which doesn't mean he wears rose-colored glasses. His movies
may be funny, but they're hardly conventional comedies, not when he
takes his cues from Franz Kafka and Buster Keaton. Characters rarely
smile, but that just makes their predicaments all the more comical.

His most straightforward film yet, The Time That Remains, returns to his roots with four chapters about his family. He begins with Nazareth's surrender to Israel in 1948 (his grandfather, the mayor, does the honors).

After the Israeli Army imposes a curfew, his father, Fuad (Saleh Bakri, the
unbelievably good looking Egyptian musician from The Band's Visit), a gun
maker, must stay inside in order to avoid getting shot. When he and a cousin step outside to help a fallen comrade, the army captures him, binds his hands, ties a blindfold around his head, and attempts to coerce information from him about the local weapons supply (they let the cousin go). When he refuses to talk, they beat him up, and leave him for dead.

Fuad lives to fight another day--and then some. The director next catches
up with him in 1970, after he has gained a wife, a son, and streaks of grey
in his wavy hair. At one point, Elia's mother (Samar Tanus; later Shafika
Bajjali) writes a letter to her sister-in-law, quoting a teacher who said her
boy is "always in the clouds." Meanwhile, their salty old neighbor is con-
stantly threatening to light himself on fire. "Shit on this life!" he exclaims during his latest attempt. Other things remain the same: Fuad still smokes, fishes at night, manufactures weapons, and risks his life for the injured.

Because he continues as a gun maker, the authorities hassle him from time to time. And because he continues to smoke, he develops a cardiac condition, which leads to open-heart surgery and further complications. By 1980, the authorities have transferred their attentions to Elia, a smoker and free thinker like his father, who flees the country to save his skin.

In the final
chapter, the
plays himself,
as he's done
twice before.
Suleiman isn't
the most ex-
pressive actor, but he doesn't direct anyone else to emote in the traditional manner either (he looks like a Gallic Robert Downey Jr. with small-scale Susan Sontag hair). There are no weddings, births, deaths, or funerals. Characters simply appear and disappear.

If this Israeli-Italian co-production starts in neo-realist mode, though,
it becomes lighter, looser, and more elliptical as it goes on (the fourth
chapter even features Nino Rota and Ennio Morricone music cues).

Like Sweden's Roy Andersson (Songs from the Second Floor), Suleiman
embraces the static tableaux. Throughout, he arranges characters per-
fectly within the frame, though he moves the camera more often, and no one shows up in whiteface (an Andersson trait which renders everyone ghost-like). Even without the grease paint, though, sad-eyed Elia seems like a ghost in his own home: life in Nazareth has gone on without him.

I'd be lying if I said I was able to follow all of the political developments
in The Time That Remains, which Suleiman conveys through radio
and TV reports. That isn't his fault. The situation is complex, and he is-
n't just looking at Israel and Palestine, but also Iraq, Egypt, and Jordan.

What happens elsewhere in the Middle East affects Elia's family, both
directly and indirectly, making for a film filled with more sadness than
anger: at lives lost both to the passage of time and to the transfer of land.
And yet, the song that plays over the end credits, an Arab take on a 19-
70s disco hit, sums up these affairs in the most humorous way possible.

***** ***** ***** ***** ***** ***** ***** ***** *****

Suleiman's film isn't the only one this year to explore life as an
Arab-Israeli. Click here for A.O. Scott's review of Julian Schnab-
el's Miral, which opens at Seattle's Varsity Theater on 4/8.

The Time That Remain
, which opened on Fri., 4/1, continues at the Northwest Film Forum through 4/7 at 7 and 9pm (no 7pm show on 4/7). The NWFF is located at 1515 12th Ave. between Pike and Pine on Capitol Hill. For more information, please click here. Images from indieWIRE.


  1. I was thinking "Suleiman Amarcord" even before the Nino Rota cue!
    Also, unless I just spaced out during the screening, I don't think the movie specifies why Elia has to leave the country. It wasn't until I watched the trailer above that I found out he had been accused of desecrating a flag. Did I just miss it, or did they cut it from the movie?

  2. Good comparison! I think Suleiman is vague on that point, as I don't recall the flag bit either. That said, the NWFF lists the film as 105 minutes, but the IMDb lists 109, so the theatrical version could be different.