With its dry tone, fragmented narrative, and repeated, deadpan gags, The Time That Remains, Elia Suleiman’s six decade-spanning speculative remembrance, brings a bleakly comic sensibility—as well as an insider’s perspective—to 60 turbulent years of Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Based loosely on the director’s own upbringing, Time begins in 1948 with the founding of the Israeli state and the ensuing upheavals felt in the Arab majority city of Nazareth—particularly those of the film’s central family, called naturally enough, the Suleimans. When brash young weapon maker Fuad Suleiman (Saleh Bakri) resists the encroachment of the occupying Israel soldiers, he’s captured and taken to a deserted arbor for questioning. There the quiet rows of trees are horribly mirrored by the equally perfect arrangements of prisoners, sitting blindfolded on the ground and bent forward like the ancient forest above them. Taken to task for his activity, Fuad is duly punished: Beaten with rifle butts, he’s then thrown over a nearby wall.
If the first of the film’s four segments establishes the displacements and dangers engendered among Nazareth’s inhabitants by Israel’s founding, then the second, which leaps ahead to 1970, explores occupation as a way of life, viewing the proceedings with a due sense of the absurd. Now settled down in a comfortable—if constantly besieged—domesticity, Fuad lives with his wife and school-age son, Elias (a fictionalized version of the director) in a comfortable Nazareth apartment. On the surface, life proceeds smoothly enough, but through a series of repeated comic motifs, Suleiman hints at the internalized sense of oppression as well as the outside danger dwelling beneath the superficial placidity. In one recurring bit, a drunken neighbor continually—if half-heartedly—threatens to set himself on fire until Fuad comes to prevent him; in another, that same neighbor concocts absurd booze-fueled plans to defeat the Israelis. More seriously, the headmaster of Elia’s school twice chides the kid for calling America an “imperialist” country in class in a pair of scenes played at a bone-dry remove, while soldiers repeatedly swing by to question Fuad and a friend while they engage in their nighttime fishing ritual. Although the soldiers always let the pair off without too much hassle, the sinister implications are felt; eventually, Fuad is arrested, absurdly, for smuggling arms across the sea from Lebanon.
After a quick dip into 1980, which finds everyone 10 years older but not otherwise greatly altered (a more chastened Fuad has just survived open-heart surgery, Elia’s youthful subversiveness has grown to the point that he’s become an enemy of the Israeli state), Sulieman zips us forward to the present day. Alternating scenes of the full grown Elia (now played by the director) visiting his ailing mother (his father apparently dead in the interim) with increasingly brief and increasingly acerbic fragments of contemporary Israeli-Arabic interaction, this last section suggests nothing so much as the futility of time’s passage to effect change: Family ties may be altered, but life passed in occupation remains pretty much the same. As Elia and his mom more or less fail to interact (the scenes between the two are marked by relentless silence broken only by the son’s brief playing of a song on the radio, the talk of the mother’s aids and a burst of fireworks), Palestinians and Israeli soldiers fight in the street, cops bust up a peaceful disco in the West Bank for curfew violation, and cabbies ply their trade by transporting carfuls of people to the occupied territories.
Still, if breaking up contemporary experience into a series of jagged fragments—increasingly Suleiman’s strategy in the later parts of his film—can be an apt way of approximating a fractured state of living, there’s always the risk that too great a fragmentation can obscure as much as it reveals. Time’s final segment continually skirts the latter tendency, with its central, repeated image (the director framed in long shot, his body stiff and rigid while his impassive face stares ahead wistfully) not quite enough to hold together the disparate elements that comprise the balance of the section. But even if the blank slate of the director’s weary visage is asked to carry too much connective weight and to stand too heavily as a repository for meaning, the image is still buffered by some of the filmmaker’s strongest comedic bits.
In one scene, shot in a single fixed take interrupted only by a few brief cutaways, a Ramallah resident exits his house to throw out the trash. As Suleiman frames the exterior of the man’s home, the shot is dominated by a massive tank that fills a good half of the screen and whose size makes it a comically incongruous presence on the narrow street. When the man crosses the road to the garbage bin, the tank’s turret pivots to follow him, but the man continues to walk unheedingly. On the verge of returning to his house, he receives a call on his cellphone and walks back and forth across the street while chatting, the turret again following the man who must surely be aware of its presence, but makes no move to acknowledge it. In this scene, the director shrewdly, bitterly evokes the experience of living under the perpetual threat of annihilation—the sense of being constantly in danger, but of having to mentally sublimate the danger just to be able to carry on with one’s daily tasks. That this is all howlingly funny just serves to point out the boldness of Suleiman’s conception, a conception whose (mostly) successful execution marks the Palestinian director’s latest as a perverse triumph of darkly comic reflection.
The Time That Remians will play on March 4 as part of this year’s Film Comment Selects series. To purchase tickets, click here.