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▶︎ It Must Be Heaven is screening in UK cinemas and streaming on BFI Player and Curzon Home Cinema from 18 June.

In It Must Be Heaven, Palestinian film-maker Elia Suleiman – as usual playing a version of himself – visits the office of a Parisian production company. The French producer – played by real-life producer and sales agent Vincent Maraval – tells Suleiman that he likes his film proposal, but won’t invest in it. Although he wouldn’t expect a Palestinian film to be didactic or exotic, nevertheless he feels that Suleiman’s script isn’t “Palestinian enough”: it features episodes that don’t seem specifically Palestinian, that “could even take place here”. Indeed, much of It Must Be Heaven does take place in Paris, as well as New York; in his fourth feature, Suleiman has ventured out internationally, as if to show that he can escape the cultural assumptions that beset Palestinian artists. Yet he also shows himself encountering something of Palestine wherever he goes.

In three earlier films, beginning with Chronicle of a Disappearance (1996), Suleiman evolved a distinctive style, his features comprising strings of deadpan vignettes offering more or less overt satirical commentary on the Palestinian condition, with the director playing a version of himself, a rueful observer of the tensions, eccentricities and sometimes violence around him. The Time That Remains (2009), combining modern Palestinian history with an autobiographical thread, is his most ambitious achievement in this vein. But It Must Be Heaven, which takes a gentler, even whimsical approach, feels somewhat flat, as if both Suleiman’s quietly mordant humour and his persona are played out.

The opening section sees Suleiman in familiar territory, his character – let’s call him ‘Elia’ – by turns encountering a neighbour who coolly appropriates the Suleiman family lemon tree; the neighbour’s elderly father; and two Palestinian men confronting a restaurateur who has compromised their sister by putting wine in a sauce. Tension defines everyday life in Nazareth, as in the farcical prelude, with a bishop infuriated by finding his procession locked out of church. The ambient tension is only fleetingly shown in explicit political terms: notably, when two Israeli soldiers are seen checking out their sunglasses in their car’s mirror, before a young woman is revealed blindfolded in the back.

It Must Be Heaven (2019)

Disposing of assorted impedimenta from, presumably, his dead parents (the film is dedicated partly to the memory of Suleiman’s parents), Elia visits Paris where he seems to find, per the title, a more heavenly state of affairs, suggested by a leeringly clichéd sequence in which various women of seraphic beauty (and one or two men) strut past him in slow motion. But even here he finds stress, enduring the basilisk glare of a tattooed punk (a preposterously cartoonish Grégoire Colin). He sees Parisians fight for chairs in the Tuileries gardens, and an ominous line of tanks roll past the august Place des Victoires (for many scenes, Suleiman procured the luxury of deserted Paris streets). He also suffers the annoyance of a Japanese couple mistaking him for their contact ‘Brigitte-san’ – a hackneyed riff on cultural misunderstanding that is one of the clumsiest things here.

In the US, too, many gags, however elegantly staged, feel wearily obvious: a New York where everyone, even the hip bourgeoisie, carries arms, from handguns to bazookas. There’s a painful encounter with a gauche African-American taxi driver, amazed to meet a real Palestinian (“My man’s from Nazareth… Jesus of Nazareth!”). It is in New York that Palestine really comes home to Elia: in Central Park, he sees police chase a young woman, a Femen protester with angel wings, breasts painted with the Palestinian flag; and glumly sits on a panel at ‘the Arab-American Forum for Palestine’, where no one gets to talk because the audience clapping takes too long. He then seeks insight from a tarot reader who tells him, “There will be Palestine… But it ain’t gonna happen in your lifetime.”

Suleiman’s persona as a peripatetic observer of the world’s madness gives continuity to the film’s content and its highly formal style, with Elia at the centre of a string of episodes presented in stripped-down, sometimes symmetrical mise en scène. Now white-bearded and professorial in glasses and hat, Elia – with his Hulot-like habit of holding his hands behind his back – is a solitary onlooker rather than a participant, and always silent (except in the New York cab where he announces, “I’m Palestinian”).

But in this film, the character, at first the familiar quizzical innocent, can also seem tetchy and disapproving – notably in that unfortunate Japanese scene, but also in one where, going through a check at a New York airport, he grabs the official’s metal detector, uses it for some impossible, CGI-aided martial arts moves (recalling the Palestinian ninja in Suleiman’s 2002 film Divine Intervention) and walks on with a look of righteous contempt. The consistent theme of It Must Be Heaven is that the world, not just Elia’s home, is a funny place, but the film is funny in a way that feels tired, often mirthless, and – as reflected in his screen persona – just a little testily supercilious.

Further reading

“Palestinisation is everywhere”: Elia Suleiman on It Must Be Heaven

By Nick Chen

“Palestinisation is everywhere”: Elia Suleiman on It Must Be Heaven

The Time That Remains: Elia Suleiman

The Time That Remains: Elia Suleiman

The song remains the same: on The Time That Remains

The song remains the same: on The Time That Remains

Sight & Sound Summer 2021

In our current (double) issue we hand centre stage to 100 hidden heroes of cinema who have shaped film history. Plus Ben Wheatley on In the Earth, Emma Seligman’s Shiva Baby, Victor Kossakovsky’s pig portrait Gunda, Jane Fonda interviewed, Limbo and refugees on film, and a look back at My Own Private Idaho. Available in print and digitally.

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