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22  05  2009

Cannes 2009 – Competition

Suleiman’s Time That Remains rich in humour and symbolism

Co-produced by France, Belgium, Italy and the UK, Palestinian filmmaker Elia Suleiman’s third feature, The Time That Remains, was presented yesterday evening in competition at the 62nd Cannes Film Festival.

Well received by the press, the work demonstrates once more that the director of Divine Intervention (Cannes Jury Prize in 2002) has a talent for cinematic tightrope walking along a fine line between drama and burlesque.

Suleiman drew his inspiration for The Time That Remains from his fathers’ notebooks, his mother’s letters and his own memories. Divided into four parts and set in Nazareth, the film retraces the life of the director’s family from 1948 to the present day, against a backdrop of historical events linked to the Israeli seizure of the city where, according to Suleiman: "The remaining Palestinians are known as Israeli Arabs and live as a minority in their own homeland."

Rich in humorous and symbolic episodes, such as a pole-vault over the wall separating Israel from the occupied territories and a tank’s cannon closely trained on a young Palestinian as he crosses the road to empty his bin, the film appears above all to be a homage to the memory of the director’s father (played by Saleh Bakri), who resisted from the outset, at the time of Israel’s creation and the surrender of Nazareth (a true diktat) on July 16, 1948.

The second part, which ends just after the death on September 28, 1970 of Egyptian pan-Arabism hero Gama Abdel Nasser, sees the Suleiman family living their everyday life. This is punctuated by their neighbour’s fits of madness, as he regularly threatens to immolate himself by fire; the father’s fishing trips; the school life of young Elia who has already been picked out ("But who told you the Americans are colonialists and imperialists?") and discovers Stanley Kubrick’s Spartacus (and the slaves’ revolt…); not to mention the constant surveillance, patrols and searches by Israeli soldiers.

The third part, set around 1980, focuses on Elia’s adolescence, amidst Palestinian demonstrations and Israeli repression, while his father draws closer to death. Finally, the last section centres on present-day Suleiman, more Buster Keaton-like than ever, as he returns to Nazareth, where his mother is nearing the end of her life.

These two episodes full of restrained and touching emotion are interspersed with funny and absurd stories, televisions showing explosive images of the world and Palestinian youngsters dancing frenetically or whistling the theme tunes from The Godfather and Once Upon a Time in the West.

Filmed almost entirely in beautiful, geometrical static shots, The Time That Remains closes with the Arabic version of the song Staying Alive, a title which says a lot about the intentions of a director who manages to honour the memory of his parents, his town and the recent history of his homeland, whilst offering a film that is as joyful and enlightening as it is tender and detached.

Fabien Lemercier - Cineuropa.org