In Nazareth, Human Comedy as Wind Rustles the Olive Branches
By A. O. SCOTT
Published: January 6, 2011
“The Time That Remains” is described by its subtitle as the “chronicle of a present absentee,” a paradoxical formulation that reveals a lot about the temperament of its director, Elia Suleiman. Mr. Suleiman, an Arab born in the Israeli city Nazareth in 1960 and currently living in Paris, has an exquisite eye for the conflicts and contradictions that bedevil his native city, but he examines them without polemics or sentimentality. “The Time That Remains” has the scope of a historical epic with none of the expected heaviness. It presents a half-century of tragedy and turmoil as a series of mordant comic vignettes. Imagine a heroic poem boiled down to a flurry of witty epigrams, or a martial statue made of origami, and you will have some idea of the improbable way this filmmaker folds big themes into delicate forms.
Or more to the point, seek out his previous feature, “Divine Intervention” (2002), a semisurrealist anthology of everyday incidents set in present-day Nazareth. Mr. Suleiman, sad eyed and silent, appears in that film as a witness to — and perhaps also a judge of — the ill-matched quirks and foibles of Israelis and Palestinians trying to achieve some kind of normalcy in the face of endless political conflict and a cosmic indifference. In this new film, the director, identified in the credits only as E S, appears early and late, wearing a white scarf that matches the Sontagian streak in his hair, first as a spectral presence in the back seat of a passenger van and then as a prodigal son returned home to collect memories and say goodbye.
Most of “The Time That Remains” is the story of Mr. Suleiman’s mother and his father, Fuad, who talks a bit more than his son and smokes a lot more than he talks. We first meet Fuad (Saleh Bakri, who played a handsome Egyptian soldier in “The Band’s Visit”), in 1948, and he is as dashing and charismatic as a Hollywood idol of that era — Gregory Peck, perhaps, or Gary Cooper. Though his experience of the first Arab-Israeli war is by turns farcical, brutal and heartbreaking, he endures it all with stoical grace. In his son’s affectionate recollection Fuad’s life is a lesson in how dignity and humanity can survive dispossession and defeat.
The film itself is evidence that E S (played as a child by Zuhair Abu Hanna and as an adolescent by Ayman Espanioli) has taken his father’s example to heart. Though there is anger, even bitterness, in his portrayal of the humiliations suffered by Palestinians at the hands of Israelis, Mr. Suleiman traffics neither in hatred nor in the romanticism of lost causes. Instead he finds comedy in cruelty, and also the reverse.
The first act of “The Time That Remains” is more or less a war movie. Its grandest action sequence, involving a bi-plane and a ragtag militia, suggests “North by Northwest” crossed with Laurel and Hardy, but the humor is not exactly lighthearted.
Violence, betrayal and oppression make their way into Mr. Suleiman’s carefully composed frames, but his tone remains quiet and contemplative throughout. And Nazareth itself seems governed as much by clarity and calm as by chaos and argument. The sunlight on the whitewashed stucco and pale stone walls etches an elegant geometry onto the streets and houses, and the dominant sound is often wind rustling the branches of olive trees. Within this landscape human activity looks both decorous and ridiculous — a cavalcade of carefully executed pratfalls and reversals.
Some of these carry the sting of satire, especially those that you suspect are close to the literal truth. A room full of Arab schoolgirls sings patriotic songs in Hebrew, for which they are given a prize by a visiting dignitary, while the young Elia is scolded for making anti-American comments in class. His trouble with the authorities will continue, but he and his parents also deal with more mundane matters, like the bad eyesight and worse cooking of Aunt Olga (Isabelle Ramadan) and the crackpot political theories of a drunken neighbor.
Through it all, time passes. Parents age, fashions change, and politics intrudes on daily life, with demoralizing but never entirely catastrophic results. “The Time That Remains,” which punctuates its story with carefully deployed incidental music, with lyrics in both Hebrew and Arabic, ends jarringly but not inaptly with a techno-remix of “Stayin’ Alive.” The song’s title encompasses the moral of this chronicle of mortality and survival, a thorny and intricate film that is also breathtakingly simple and honest.