Watching Elia Suleiman's films, with their combination of straight-faced lunacy and formal symmetrical framing, you wonder what sort of person could embody so harmoniously the sane and the cuckoo. Then Suleiman himself appears on screen and you think, ah, that sort of person. He gazes forlornly into the camera with his gravedigger eyes, and doesn't so much stand as linger, in the loose-limbed manner of a neglected marionette hanging on a hook. There is a quality to his expression that is sympathetic but definitively beyond our reach.
Maybe it's the privacy of pain. This 49-year-old director, born in Nazareth, makes films about living in Israel as a Palestinian; he shapes that reality into vignettes which, staged before a largely fixed camera, suggest the work of fellow absurdists such as Jacques Tati and Roy Andersson. There are scenes in Suleiman's last picture, Divine Intervention (2000), that merit inclusion in any showreel of taboo-tweaking in cinema, together with the flight of Christ at the start of La Dolce Vita or the uncouth Last Supper in Viridiana. An Arab woman levitates in front of Israel Defence Forces marksmen as a halo of bullets circles her head. A balloon emblazoned with the face of Yasser Arafat floats over the heads of soldiers at the border checkpoint. If this is magical realism, it's the magic of fire-eating and people sawn in half.
Suleiman's latest film, The Time That Remains, has the odd visual doozy that wouldn't have been out of place in Divine Intervention, not least the moment when the director calmly pole-vaults over the West Bank barrier. (He is so unflappable, he doesn't even break into a sweat.) For the most part, this is a more linear, naturalistic picture. The shift away from the fantasy and symbolism of Divine Intervention can be summed up by a song performed in the new film by schoolchildren: "This is not a metaphor or a dream/It's as true as the sunshine at noon."
Suleiman takes his own family history as a microcosm of Palestine from shortly after the 1948 Declaration of the Establishment of the State of Israel to the present day. His father, Fuad (Saleh Bakri), smuggled arms for the Palestinian resistance and the film doesn't shy away from the brutality meted out to him. Suleiman's preferred angle, the static wide shot, comes into its own here, rendering the violence analytically rather than viscerally. A subjective camera is also skilfully used. When Fuad is taken, shackled and blindfolded, to an orchard to be interrogated, he turns his face towards the verdant landscape. The camera briefly adopts his point of view - or, rather, the point of view he would have if his eyes were not covered. There is great symbolic power in this shot, which shows the land envisaged by Fuad even as it is being denied him.
In its strain of domestic humour, The Time That Remains is just as likely to come off like a politicised Radio Days. The repetition in Suleiman's childhood becomes a warm running joke, whether it's the ritual of returning from his aunt Olga's house with a lentil dish that is scraped straight into the bin, or the scolding he receives at school for disparaging the US. The action moves from 1948 through to Suleiman's youth in the 1970s and on to his young adulthood in the early 1980s. There is a kind of relief when the director appears as himself in the latter-day section, reintroducing the more free-floating structure of Divine Intervention. While both pictures present the lot of Arabs in the occupied territories as one of forbearance, it is the looser format, with its dry non sequiturs, that better suits the intractable subject.
Divine Intervention distilled daily life into the dismal image of a Palestinian waiting for a bus that he already knows doesn't run. The Time That Remains goes one better, showing a young man strolling back and forth across the street as he chats on his mobile phone. His movements are tracked by the groaning gun of a tank, standing only a few feet away, which sticks to him with all the loyalty of a follow-spot at the London Palladium. The man is oblivious to it; he is accustomed to bearing the unbearable. And the film plays out, almost too fittingly, with an Arab variation on "Stayin' Alive".
Ryan Gilbey blogs on film every Tuesday at Cultural Capital.