It Must Be Heaven

 

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Palestinian filmmaker Elia Suleiman goes in search of an alternative homeland in his latest idiosyncratic comedy.

 
It Must Be Heaven   

The impact of this film is entirely dependent on the taste of the viewer. It Must Be Heaven, the latest work from the Palestinian writer/director Elia Suleiman, is made with the total assurance of somebody in complete control of his craft, but it is such a singular work, so personal in its humour, that its appeal will be determined by the degree to which each person watching it finds the chosen material engaging. Some will regard it as sublime, while others will be bored by it. In my own case I was mildly entertained.

 

Suleiman has always been a very individual talent and in his two earlier features released here, Divine Intervention (2002) and The Time That Remains (2009), he treated stories about Palestinians living in Israel. In doing so he adopted a style that, while acknowledging the potentially tragic as one might expect, leavened the material with an eye for humour that seemed to echo the quiet, observing mode of the great Jacques Tati. That unexpected blend incensed some viewers who mistakenly assumed that the inclusion of jokes was evidence of a lack of feeling.

 

Returning to full-length feature films after ten years, Suleiman gives us in It Must Be Heaven a work that retains much of the quirky character of those earlier pieces but develops it even further while also demonstrating a more complete command of filmmaking as he continues his association with the editor, Véronique Lange. This time the film begins in Suleiman's home town of Nazareth but then moves on to Paris and New York in turn returning to Nazareth only at the close. In The Time That Remains which was derived from his past family history Suleiman played his adult self. It is a role that he reprises here but now as the prime figure, an observant traveller who in all three locations notes the oddities of the world around him. These are portrayed in a series of short scenes or vignettes each one of which exists for its own sake rather than as part of any very distinct developing narrative.

 

The influence of Tati has not disappeared as witness such episodes as the one set in Paris in which an elderly woman making for a vacant chair is outmanoeuvred by someone else's swift, determined movement towards it. But this time one detects what is possibly an even stronger influence, that of the quirky Swedish filmmaker Roy Andersson, he of Songs from the Second Floor (2000). The dead-pan style, the laid-back tone, the distinctive use of short scenes and the take it or leave it feel as to the appeal of each segment all seem indebted to Andersson, not least to his 2014 feature A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence so hugely admired by some but not by others. A memorable sequence featuring Suleiman, a bird and a computer illustrates this admirably and it is also Andersson's work that shows how it is possible to combine somewhat enigmatically a comic surface with underlying serious, social concerns. Even a small incident such as the sight of a tattooed man behaving rather oddly on the Paris metro (a cameo by Grégoire Colin) feels halfway between the comic and the threatening and something of the same blend emerges in an episode showing a row of tanks appearing on the deserted streets of Paris. Just why the city is empty one day and busy the next is never explained. Elsewhere there are a number of scenes featuring policemen that amuse but which feel intimidating too.

 

In the first half-hour set in Nazareth neighbours feature (what Suleiman's neighbour is up to in Suleiman's garden almost becomes a running gag) and the diverse episodes do suggest questions about people being    good or bad neighbours to each other. However, with Suleiman himself speaking hardly at all, the narrative such as it is never coheres around any clear theme. Instead it is all diverse material ranging from Gael García Bernal popping up as himself to a tarot reading with a message as to the future hope for Palestine. A pre-credit sequence involving a religious procession impeded in an unexpected way that causes a bishop to lose his temper might suggest criticism of the Church but later on nuns are seen helping to feed the poor. Ultimately this film rather than building meaningfully leaves you taking each piece for what it is worth and, since in comedy one man's meat is another man's poison, Suleiman's film is bound to meet with a wide range of responses.  But throughout it is beautifully shot and the cinematic skill even extends to the adroit use of two songs on the soundtrack, ‘Darkness’ by Leonard Cohen and the Jay Hawkins number ‘I Put a Spell On You’ performed by Nina Simone. It Must Be Heaven is anything but a conventional movie.

 

MANSEL STIMPSON

 

Cast: Elia Suleiman, Grégoire Colin, Gael García Bernal, Tarik Kopty, Kareem Ghneim, Vincent Maraval, Stephen McHatttie, Asmaa Azaizeh.

 

Dir Elia Suleiman, Pro Édouard Weil, Laurine Pelassy, Elia Suleiman, Thanassis Karathanos, Martin Hampel and Serge Noël, Screenplay Elia Suleiman, Ph Sofian El Fani, Art Dir Caroline Alder and Juna Suleiman, Ed Véronique Lange, Costumes Alexia Crisp-Jones.

 

Rectangle Productions/Nazara Films/Pallas film/Zeyno Film/Wild Bunch-New Wave Films.
102 mins. France/Qatar/Germany/Canada/Turkey/Palestine. 2019. Rel: 18 June 2021. Cert. 15.