Tuesday, January 11, 2011

The Time That Remains

Elia Suleiman's "The Time That Remains" pretty much cuts its viewers off from any sort of emotional involvement (as at least one has said of the very similar Coen Brothers film "A Serious Man"). It makes few, if any, of its characters relatable in any way. This is deliberate, apparently, but it does the film absolutely no favors and will drive a lot of people away from it. To add to that, the film also overloads on cheesy wry humor. Since it's not backed by solidity, it makes the film plod along. Sure enough, by the final third of the film, I was nearly asleep.

However, if we look at this film on a formal level, it is truly phenomenal. Marc-Andre Betigne's cinematography, always beautifully lensed, always brilliantly composed with meticulous camera placement, is some of the best I've seen in a long, long time. Every shot is staggering. Suleiman's nostalgic evocation of 20th century Israel is much bettered by it. (For the look of the film, think "You, the Living" crossed with "Life During Wartime" and, of course, "A Serious Man.")

But alas, as Matt Zoller Seitz perceptively pointed out, this will not assuage the doubts of someone not delighted by cinema technically. I'm pretty sure that those people will not particularly enjoy this film. Not that this movie was made for a wide audience, exactly, but arthousers: don't make this be the cross-over film for your mainstream friend. It might not even be the film for you.

The film, after a pre-title sequence that allows one of its characters a slight degree of emotion, follows the director's family in 1948 Nazareth as they react to military occupation and Israel's inception. (We even see the mayor of the city signing it over to the Israeli army.) Suleiman's father Fuad (portrayed by Saleh Bakri) is an infamous gunmaker who is being sought after by the army and being told by his family to stop his intense participation in the rebellious effort. He's nearly executed, but instead just left for dead.

Think to yourself: this is a section that could mine sentiment from the audience. Somehow it doesn't. Suleiman may be trying to do this, which makes some sense stylistically, but it's an affectation that plays out poorly. Most filmmakers would have wisely exploited these events for drama. Though it's good that Suleiman strives to dodge convention, this may have not been the best place to do it.

We also are privy to daily life in the Suleiman family which mostly consists of putting up with drunk and myopic neighbors alike and fishing at night. These scenes, along with a confrontation between Elia and his teacher, are repeated many times. They are sometimes amusing, but are more likely to cause annoyance than anything else.

The last 40 minutes or so of the film, a confusing and disheartening clutter, lets on to you slowly but surely that there is no other shoe that will drop anytime soon (with an ending that sort of reminds me of "Wild Grass"). Those who liken the fictional version of Elia Suleiman (played in this portion of the movie by the director himself) to Buster Keaton seem to be forgetting that that man was actually fun to watch. Suleiman makes a dirge into even more of one. The film deserves a bit more slack than I'm cutting it, but in being too clever by half, and (again like "Grass") excelling only its look, I don't think I'll grant it that much. C+

No comments: