Although it actually stands as the final act in Elia Suleiman’s loosely linked trilogy of semi-autobiographical “chronicles” of Palestinian life (Chronicle of a Disappearance, 96; Divine Intervention, 02) The Time That Remains suffered in some ways—and rather unfairly—from the “curse of the sophomore effort” when it premiered at Cannes in 2009. The film was far from panned, and Suleiman’s mordant gaze and mastery of his craft were duly noted. But the critical embrace remained measured, rationalized, and somewhat weary. There were of course a variety of factors at play in this timid and to a certain extent dutiful reception—a particularly strong competition that year, a screening late in the festival—but writing now with the relative clarity granted by hindsight and a second viewing, these reasons appear to have been primarily contextual, and have little to do with the actual quality of the work.
Subtitled “Chronicle of a Present Absentee,” The Time That Remainsmay very well be a much deeper and more mature piece than Divine Intervention—and a much more ambitious one too. Inspired by Suleiman’s father’s diaries as a resistance fighter during the events that surrounded the creation of Israel, as well as by his mother’s letters to exiled family members over the decades that followed, it’s filtered through the prism of the director’s own memories and distinctive outlook. The film proposes a uniquely idiosyncratic portrait—both tenderly intimate and shrewdly caustic—of the lives of those Palestinians who chose to remain in their land and have come to be known as “Israeli Arabs.”
The project is epic, but the execution is minimalist and almost monastic in its simplicity, unfolding, as it does, in Suleiman’s characteristic nonnarrative style, through a series of self-contained, carefully constructed, and generally dryly comic vignettes—a fragmented structure to capture a fractured region. Politics is of course an inherent component of life in that part of the world, so seeking to wholly evade it would be futile—and claiming genuine neutrality, spurious. But Suleiman’s approach, anchored as it is in minutiae and the absurd, manages to rescue the Arab-Israeli issue from its usual hijacking by ideology, whether it be that of victimization, of self-defense, or of so-called “peace.” The brief allusions, in the film’s background, to certain historical milestones—the creation of Israel, the death of Nasser, the start of the intifada—do not come across as engaged political statements so much as symbolic markers of time, allowing Suleiman to bypass the history lesson, i.e., the tedious explanation of the bigger picture, in order to tackle, unhindered, something just as fundamental: daily life in its most minor yet suggestive details.
With The Time That Remains, Suleiman maintains and sharpens the tone and form set by Chronicle of a Disappearance and Divine Intervention: the trademark deadpan sensibility, the rigorously arranged tableaux, and the predilection for silence, stillness, and repetition that have earned him, time and again, comparisons with Jacques Tati and Buster Keaton. But—and this is what makes Suleiman’s latest an ultimately more complex film than the previous two—he also manages to transcend these qualities, as, surreptitiously, through the comedy of it all, a mounting tenderness and melancholy creep in and, in the end, a certain loss of hope. Boris Vian once defined humor as une politesse du désespoir (“the politeness of despair”). In The Time That Remains, Suleiman’s distilled and matured wit suddenly becomes just that. And the effect is quite powerful. Which is not to say that sentimentality colors the film. Suleiman still handles emotion cautiously and tentatively, and the result is somehow all the more stirring for that. He remains above all a cerebral filmmaker, with a measured, controlled, reflective voice. A rather unique and fascinating voice, really, with its unshakably cool, incisive, yet no less passionate tenor on a topic where heat and clamor so often prevail.