Saturday, April 2, 2011

Goodbye to All That: The Time That Remains

THE TIME THAT RE- MAINS: Chronicle of a Present Absentee (Elia Suleiman, 2009, 35mm, 105 mins) 

In his films, Arab-Israeli director Elia Suleiman (Chronicle of a Disappearance, Divine Intervention) blurs the lines between fact and fantasy. It's part of what makes his work so compelling, despite the fact that all three, which constitute 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 absurdity, which doesn't mean he wears rose-colored glasses. His films may be funny, but they're hardly conventional comedies, not when he takes his cues from stern-faced fellows like 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. 

Suleiman 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 (played first by Samar Tanus and then later by 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 constantly 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 filmmaker plays himself, as he's done twice before. Suleiman isn't the most expressive 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 music cues from Nino Rota and Ennio Morricone ). 

Like Sweden's Roy Andersson (Songs from the Second Floor), Suleiman embraces the static tableaux. Throughout, he arranges characters perfectly 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 wasn't able to follow all of the political developments in The Time That Remains, which Suleiman conveys through radio and TV reports. The situation is complex, and he doesn't look strictly at Israel and Palestine, but also Iraq, Egypt, and Jordan. What happens 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 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 1970s 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 Schnabel's Miral, which opens at Seattle's Varsity Theater on 4/8. The Time That Remains, 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.