REVIEW: ‘The Time That Remains’ (2011)

Grade: B+

There is a lot of unevenness in Elia Suleiman’s poetic film The Time That Remains. The narrative, the tone, and the mise-en-scene are so consistently off-balance that it has to be purposeful. Apropos of its Arab-Israeli war setting, the film’s unbalance creates the feeling of chaos, confusion, and identity crisis that must have been present in those regions during the time. Suleiman uses the almost dialogue-free 109 minute running time to tell a story that is more about visual poetry than it is about politics and it is much better off for it.

The first act of the film contains as a war story surrounding one Arab family in Nazareth who found themselves caught up in the war during the mid-twentieth century. With several brief scenes that resemble some of the cliché moments in well-known Holocaust movies, the film takes little time to emerge into black comedy complete with slapstick humor and political satire (with a few references and jokes than my uneducated American brain could comprehend).

The small semblance of a narrative that exists follows one Arab family as they deal with the changes occurring in the formation of Israel. The story is split up into three acts and is apparently closely based on Suleiman’s own experiences. It begins with Suleiman as a young boy who is constantly berated in school for his anti-American views, continues to when he is a young man with ambitions to leave Nazareth, and finishes when Suleiman steps out from behind the camera to play himself as he returns to his boyhood home to be with his aging mother.

While not overtly political, there is definitely some anti-Israeli sentiment from the Palestinian filmmaker. The actors cast to play Israeli soldiers were comically short compared to their Arab captors and there was always a sense of paranoia among the authority figures. A young Arab man paces in the street while an armored tank’s turret follows him back and forth, presumably with Israeli soldiers inside; a car full of uniformed Israeli’s shout about curfew to a night club full of oblivious dancers; and a sick man in the hospital is fought over by soldiers and doctors before the doctors eventually win. All of these moments create the sense that the ruling group is actually inferior and the oppressors fear the oppressed.

At its heart, The Time That Remains is about the frailty of human life and each character has different attitude towards human mortality. If the aforementioned scenes were in a World War II movie, you can bet the Nazis would enter and start bashing skulls, but there seems to be a deeply understood reverence for life that is present with every character in the film. In the third act, Elia Suleiman steps out from behind the camera to act as a visible observer of the events that unfold on screen. He watches with a deadpan stare that could guilt anyone who might be caught being observed.

Music is also a powerful theme used in the film. The Arab characters gradually emerge into a state of numbness as the film progresses with little exhibit of emotion even when major life events are occurring. Suleiman introduces music into scenes to breathe life into the stone-faced characters. There is an Arab dance club that won’t be shut down, a funny and heartwarming rendition of “My Heart Will Go On” performed by the Asian housekeeper, and the radio that finally gets Suleiman’s mother to tap her feet, in one of the most touching parts of the film. Music is a catalyst for the display of deep human thoughts, fears, and desires that can not otherwise be externalized.

With music as such a strong theme, it’s curious then that some of the most elaborately choreographed scenes in the film have no soundtrack. Some very creative movement direction was employed to allow the camera to remain static while the characters essentially danced in and out of frame. The precisely choreographed movements that progress the narrative were reminiscent of Jerome Robbins, but without the music or singing. These moments showed great imagination, although often had too unclear of motivation to seem worth keeping the camera steady.

The Time That Remains was the first Elia Suleiman film that I have seen, but with such imagination and visual creativity it will definitely not be the last, whether balanced or not.

Bottom Line: While not your typical movie-going experience, Elia Suleiman’s poetic and imaginative film The Time That Remains is definitely worth watching.

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