Living in a part of the world where politics, and the pursuit of politics by warring means, are the rule, director Elia Suleiman is the exception.
In his work, at least, he's a humanist with an eye that gazes dispassionately across the Mideast divide and finds on both sides an abundance of dark comedy, pure tragedy, patent absurdity, of large cruelties and small kindnesses. Of course, these are commonalities at all points on the globe, but a bellicose region treats them differently - there, they link everyone but unite no one.
That has long been Suleiman's message, and it's much the same in The Time That Remains. Indeed, the absence of change, the sheer constancy of the situation, is the central theme here.
A semi-autobiographical account of his family's travails, the film is framed in the present, in the celebrated town of Nazareth but quickly circles back to the troubled heart of the matter - to 1948, when Israel is created and the Palestinians are dispersed.
The subtitle, Chronicle of a Present-Absentee, describes the status of the Suleiman clan: Arabs living in Israel but refused nationality by the authorities. But it also captures the style of the movie itself: much silence, many static tableaus with the camera peering through windows, trapped inside and staring out at a social landscape that time alters superficially but not meaningfully.
What follows, loosely structured in four episodes, is a series of impressionistic vignettes that initially seem disjointed yet soon settle into a clear pattern. In the first segment, the director's father Fuad (Saleh Bakri) is a resistance fighter who doesn't resist for long. We see him arrested with his comrades, then shackled and taken to an arbour where, at the base of the trees, they're made to kneel on the ground - another land's "strange fruit" awaiting the torturous harvest.
Although the script is partly based on his father's private diaries, the son shoots these scenes at a calculated remove, as if to distance himself from the brutality. Subsequent vignettes find him equally detached from the behaviour in the Arab faction - the aimless militarism, the passive surrender, the pointless suicides.
In the next chapter, repetition is the dominant motif, and sequences recur with only slight variations - like Elia as a schoolboy getting chided for his critical view of the United States, or a drunken Arab neighbour forever spinning his wacky political theories.
Later, as he did in his earlier film Divine Intervention, Suleiman appears as his adult self, Keatonesque in his insistent silence and ironic gaze - through another window at another intifada, or, these days, looking down at the streets of contemporary Nazareth, where Arab music has given way to Western pop and political violence to gang wars among the idle young.
On occasion, some of the repetition feels, well, repetitious, merely recementing the already concrete. But other tableaux are wonderfully vivid and starkly resonant, like the one set in Ramallah. There, on a residential corner, a huge tank sits menacingly, its turret arcing back and forth to trace the every move of a teenage boy leaving his house - first to take out the garbage, then to chat excitedly on his cellphone about the awesome new tunes he's just downloaded.
When the same boy visits a nightclub filled with gyrating dancers, the tank gives way to a truck equipped with a loudspeaker. Outside, the speaker announces the curfew; inside, the kids dance on. Repeatedly, the loudspeaker barks; obliviously, the music blares.
Yes, amid so much that has changed, it's the same old noise.
The Time That Remains
- Directed and written by Elia Suleiman
- Starring Saleh Bakri and Elia Suleiman
- Classification: 14A