On one Saturday morning earlier last month, I made my way through a large packed dark theater in search for an unoccupied seat. An elderly genial gentleman tapped my back and pointed to an empty seat beside him. “Don’t worry, you didn’t miss much, he told me. We exchanged a few quick words as I settled in my seat. There was laughter, plenty of it, echoing from every corner of the auditorium. And then silence reigned.
On screen, a young father sits motionless in his vehicle, his head tilted down in defiance. The rich, dulcet voice of Leila Mourad reverberates from a car radio. His son, standing outside the car, is gazing at him, clutching on another piece of memory. The gentleman beside me started to cry, covering his face in embarrassment when he realized I was looking at him. I redirected my attention back to the screen, my hands slightly shaking. It didn’t matter what came afterwards; this was the most powerful moment I’ve witnessed on film this year.
The film is “Al-Zaman Al-Baqi (The Time That Remains), Palestinian filmmaker Elia Suleiman’s fourth feature and the third, and final, chapter of a semi-autobiographical trilogy that began with “Chronicles of Disappearance in 1996 and continued with “Yadon ilaheyya (Divine Intervention) in 2002.
The 2009 Palme d’Or nominee and winner of the Middle East International Film Festival’s best Middle Eastern film award, “The Time That Remains is the centerpiece of the upcoming European Film Panorama, a weeklong film fest showing 12 of the most acclaimed European productions of the year including Anne Fontaine’s “Coco avant Chanel, Alejandro Amenábar’s “Agora, Pedro Almodóvar’s “Broken Embraces and Jacques Audiard’s “Un prophète.
Spanning 60 years from the 1948 nakba till present day, “The Time That Remains is an anthology of memories, an intimate chronicle of the history Suleiman’s family partly based on his father’s diaries. The picture he draws of his hometown, Nazareth, is small in scope. Most major political events of past six decades are intentionally bypassed; the few ones do make the cut – the fall of Nazareth, the death of Nasser – are framed from a personal perspective that is both affectionate and wry. A comprehensive document of the history of Palestine à la “Gate of the Sun this isn’t.
The film is divided into five sections, separated by fadeouts. No commentaries or dates are used. The first segment charts the surrender of Nazareth to the Israeli army and the break of the Arab resistance. In a nod to the failure of the Arab troops, a lost Iraqi soldier is seen asking a group of young Palestinians sitting at a coffee shop about the direction to the battlefield.
Suleiman’s father, Fuad (a strikingly subdued Saleh Bakri from “The Band’s Visit and “Salt of this Sea ), still believes that the fight could be won. As the rest of his family move abroad, he turns to armed resistance, manufacturing weapons in secret. Soon, he’s arrested and nearly killed.
As the banal reality of the occupation begins to sink in, Fuad grows accustomed to the routine. The hope for victory, for reclaiming their land, gradually diminishes.
The second segment is set the 70s. A young Elia (Zuhair Abu Hanna) is forced to sing a rousing anthem for the Israeli state. He watches in bewilderment with his class Stanley Kubrick’s Hollywood Zionism allegory “Spartacus. He gets into troubled for calling the US “imperialist. From the he was born, Elia finds himself a stranger in his country.
The following segment takes place in the late 70s. Now a teen, Elia (Ayman Espanioli) must leave the country. Fuad becomes a shadow of the man he used to be. All what’s left from his home is bunch of memories and the voice of Leila Mourad.
In the last part of the film; a silent stone-faced Elia (playing himself), now a middle-aged man, returns to Nazareth. His father has passed away. His wheelchair-bound diabetic mother grows into one of the numerous silent figures populating Elia’s life. As the film progress, fewer exteriors are shown; there seems to be no place in this nation for Suleiman. He becomes confined inside his family’s home, trapped inside those distant memories.
Like his previous outings, “The Time That Remains is a black comedy composed of scrupulously crafted tableaus. Suleiman seldom moves his camera; action is conceived via straight cuts, juxtapositions and the movement of characters in and out the frame, creating a scenic “musicality as he often describes it.
The first two parts of the trilogy are made up of a series of separate vintages grouped under a single unifying theme. Both films, in terms of rhythm and structure, closely resemble the works of Swedish director Roy Andersson (“Songs from the Second Floor, “You, the Living ) who also uses multiple disconnected sketches and dark humor for his existentialist meditations on modern Sweden.
The deadpan comedy that delineates the films of both filmmakers is rooted in the silent slapsticks of Buster Keaton and the classic deadpan comedies of great French filmmaker Jacques Tati. Influences aside, both filmmakers have developed an original cinematic style entirely their own. Despite their ingenuity, audacity and sophistication, the early films of Suleiman occasionally felt distant; some of his episodes brilliantly hit the right chord, others didn’t.
In contrast, his latest film flows smoothly with nary a false note. “The Time That Remains is Suleiman’s warmest, most personal, most accomplished film to date, built, for the first time in his career, on a quasi-tangible narrative. The new-found sense of coherence gives his images a stronger clout, tapping into the kind of searing emotions Suleiman – the most European of all Arab filmmakers – has adamantly steered away from in the past.
Suleiman’s signature employment of recurring imagery is also rendered to a more compelling effect in here in terms of both comedy and central theme. The most riotous of these scenes are those involving Fuad’s mad, drunken, foul-mouthed old neighbor (Tarek Qubti) who douses himself with kerosene, threatening to burn himself alive, screaming the most outrageous profanities you can imagine regarding the hopelessness of the situation they’re in and the impotency of the Arabs.
On other hand, the repeated usage of actions and images – a group of bored Israeli soldiers interrogating Fuad and a friend of his every time they go fishing, Elia and his companions sitting idly in front of an abandoned postcard shop (an image present in both “Chronicles and “Intervention – exposes the ludicrous routine of life under occupation.
The most powerful of all Suleiman’s devices is the employment of music in the form of an aural memory not only for the characters, but for the Arab viewers. Snippets of songs by Abdel Wahab, Mourad and Nagat El-Saghira are repeatedly featured in different contexts, expounding in later parts of the films the grave and painful loss not only of Suleiman’s family, but of an entire nation.
The one aspect I still can’t put my hands on is Suleiman’s ability in churning these big emotions and epic scenes using the most minimal of techniques. Beside the aforementioned scene in the car, one the most shattering moments of the films takes place halfway through the film when Nasser dies. An expressionless Fuad sits still in front of his radio at home Sadat begins to recite his famous eulogy to Nasser and witnessing the end of the Arab dream, the obliteration of the last thread of hope he’s hanged to for more than 20 years.
The last part of the film takes a detour, returning to the post-modernist comedy of previous parts of the trilogy. Suleiman breaks the audience’s expectations, immersing them in the absurdity, the monotony and meaninglessness of a place that has succumbed to the overpowering forces of occupation. The picture grows bleaker; humor is stretched to outlandish levels. A sense of eerie coolness seeps into the picture. The earlier nostalgic tone is swapped for a cynical one.
The memories that make up “The Time That Remains are traces of a place, a time and a people. Each
fragment is created with the uttermost care. The film could be regarded as an attempt by Suleiman to preserve his identity, to defy both time and the occupation by immortalizing his family, people and the land that once was. Hope, innocence and love.everything that meant something has vanished with the time that passed and there’s nothing much left in the time that remains.
“The Time That Remains is screening on Saturday, December 19, at 1 pm in CityStars Cinema. Check Daily News Egypt next week for full information and schedule of the Euro Film Panorama.