Tuesday, January 04, 2011

Suleiman’s The Time that Remains

Kovacs-esque humor and revisionist grievance theater make for a strange mix, but it offers audiences far more than the typical agit-prop of “Palestinian” cinema (like the self-parodying Salt of this Sea). Though his interpretation of history is often debatable, Elia Suleiman is an accomplished filmmaker, crafting some brilliant individual scenes in The Time that Remains (trailer here), the third film of his self-referential Nazareth trilogy, which opens this Friday in New York at the IFC Center.

In 1948, most of “ES”’s family is scrambling to leave the former British Mandate rather than live together with Jews, but not his future father. Fuad Suleiman intends to stay and fight with the other weekend Fedayeen turning up in town. However, he quickly learns, not only is war difficult, the Israelis are surprisingly good at it. Instead, Suleiman père settles into a quiet life in their family home, though whether he is still clandestinely involved in resistance is deliberately ambiguous.

Drawing on his parents’ and relatives’ letters and diaries, Suleiman tells a tempus fugit story of a diasporic family. Of course, the larger geo-political events never long recede from the foreground. Indeed, Suleiman has a real aptitude for capturing the absurdity of war. In fact, some of his visual set-ups suggest the spirits of Keaton and Tati (yes, you read that right). Unfortunately, despite his inventiveness, Suleiman occasionally indulges in some incendiary manipulations, like that of an Arab woman shot in cold blood by undercover Israeli soldiers simply for pure spite, that border on the reprehensible.

Saleh Bakri, who acquitted himself rather well in Annemarie Jancir’s silly aforementioned Salt, again displays real screen presence as Fuad. It would be fascinating to see him in a more nuanced, less didactic film. Still, Time represents a quantum leap forward. Despite its reliance on hot button provocation, it is a stylishly crafted film. Suleiman puts on a clinic on the effective use of silence on screen, while cinematographer Marc-André Batigne’s arsenal of color and shadow (particularly in the evocative framing scenes) is consistently artful.

Ultimately, the sum of Time’s parts is greater than its whole. Yet, at least is has those intriguing parts. This is progress. A mixed but consistently interesting bag, Time opens this Friday (1/7) in New York at the IFC Center.