If talking marsupials don't grab you, try foreign films

Hollywood is undergoing its usual January dry spell, releasing movies that would have opened before Dec. 31 if their studios thought they stood any chance in the 2002 awards races. Also as usual, international imports are helping to fill the void, making this a lively month for moviegoers with adventurous eyes and ears.

The most controversial offering is Divine Intervention, a political satire that relied on no fewer than six production companies - in France, the Palestinian territories, Morocco, and Germany - to propel it from script to screen.

The movie was written and directed by Elia Suleiman, the only current Palestinian filmmaker whose work effectively reaches out to a wide international audience. It generated much debate at respected venues such as the New York and Toronto film festivals, where heavily attended showings paved the way for its American theatrical première this week.

Response has run the gamut from lavish praise to indignant anger. The only point to win agreement is that Suleiman refused to play it safe, couching his astringent commentary on Palestinian-Israeli relations in a film that draws much of its style from conventions of screen comedy.

The main character is a Palestinian man called E.S., based on Suleiman, who plays the part himself. He lives in Nazareth near the Ramallah border, a location closely monitored by Israeli troops.

This makes it hard for him to woo his girlfriend, who lives on the other side of the checkpoint. Much of the film occurs in a parking lot, where they evade prying eyes. Other scenes show E.S. coping with his ailing father, working on a screenplay that never gets off the ground, and getting through daily life in his neighborhood, where everyone is feuding with everyone else.

Most of this material is handled in a spirit of understated comedy, prompting comparisons with the work of screen humorists such as Jacques Tati and even Buster Keaton, whose deadpan performances have much in common with Suleiman's approach.

At times the film spins in a more radical direction, though - notably when E.S.'s girlfriend abruptly morphs into a ninja warrior who turns a target-practice session of Israeli troops into a hair-raising eruption of surrealistic mayhem.

Some see this dreamlike scene as a sardonic comment on the grim absurdity of unending Israeli-Palestinian hostility. Others see it as an anti-Jewish fantasy that crosses the line between expressing a politically motivated opinion and venting an anger-driven bias.

While there's no "correct" interpretation of such a button-pushing moment in such a multifaceted film, the scene's power comes from Suleiman's skill at conjuring up images from the political unconscious of people wracked by violence and insecurity. In this sense, "Divine Intervention" is the "Dr. Strangelove" of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, bringing barely acknowledged fears to the surface so they can be understood.

Conflict of a different kind surges through City of God, a new Brazilian drama offering a cinematic guided tour of Rio de Janeiro's anarchic slums over some 15 years, from the late 1960s to the early '80s. The main characters are criminals of a most disturbing kind - ranging from 9 to 14 years old, and so lacking in judgment and experience that they're at least as dangerous as the veteran thugs they imitate.

The most important of the film's many characters are a young man named Buscapé, whose photography skills allow him to document the violent events and personalities around him, and Little Ze, the demented ringleader of a particularly awful gang. Devoid of conscience or insight into anything beyond his own animal desires, Little Ze is as chilling a villain as one can imagine.

"City of God" is adapted from a bestselling novel by Paolo Lins, who reportedly based the book on real people and experiences that touched his early life.

In its story and characters, the movie recalls the great Cinema Novo movement that Brazil spawned in the '60s and '70s, combining stark realism with expressive style. In its cinematic approach, though, the film is as slick as any Hollywood thriller, directed by Fernando Meirelles with visual flourishes - jazzy editing, lurid colors, crackling sound effects - that dilute the impact of what might have been an indelible cautionary tale.

• 'Divine Intervention,' not rated, and 'City of God,' rated R, both contain sex and violence.

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