Palestinian comedy. The two words together seem like an oxymoron when so much news coming from that part of the world is anything but funny. But that’s where Elia Suleiman has made his mark in cinema. The Palestinian actor/writer/director’s award-winning 2002 film, DIVINE INTERVENTION, humorously looked at a day in the life of a Palestinian living in Nazareth, Israel, whose girlfriend lives the West Bank city of Ramallah. Though the two cities are just under 90 kilometers apart, travel time can often take as long as three hours due to the security checkpoints en route. Suleiman is back after a ten-year absence (though he did make a short film in 2012) and again he’s finding humour in the absurdity of the mundane.
In IT MUST BE HEAVEN, Suleiman once again plays a fictional version of himself. Living in Nazareth (as the real Suleiman does), he deals with life’s head-scratching moments in a nonplussed manner without ever saying a word (except once in New York). Searching for a bit of sanity, he heads to Paris but he finds that city to be just as bizarre as his own with policemen on electric unicycles, residents bogarting chairs in a public park, and a bird that just won’t leave his hotel room. He then makes his way to New York City where he meets up with his friend, Gael García Bernal (THE KINDERGARTEN TEACHER; COCO; NERUDA). The Mexican actor wants to help Suleiman get his film made but, while it seems that everyone is happy to have him in New York, no one is interested in the film because it is not “Palestinian enough”. In the end, he returns to Nazareth and back to the absurdities that he knows best.
Many have compared Suleiman’s style to those of Buster Keaton, Jacques Tati and perhaps even Mr. Bean, as the audience sees the world through his alter-ego. In scene after scene, the director positions the camera squarely on his characters’ faces, forcing the audience to focus on their eyes to glean their thoughts. In the fictional Suleiman’s case, those eyes reveal everything from simple curiosity to downright bewilderment. Where the film excels are the highly choreographed street scenes in all three cities that play out like modern ballets. Unfortunately, these vignettes often run slightly too long and can get tedious to all but the most ardent Suleiman fan.
Audiences have become used to seeing Palestinian films that have a political message, and perhaps this is the problem that the fictional Suleiman has with his fictional film — it’s not political, or not political enough. While IT MUST BE HEAVEN does have a hint of a political message to it, it’s mostly about a man who comes to the realization that however screwed up it is, there’s no place like home.
IT MUST BE HEAVEN premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in May 2019 where it took home the FIPRESCI Prize for the Best Film in Competition. It was later selected as Palestine’s entry for the Academy Award for Best International Feature Film but it failed to make the shortlist of nominees.
IT MUST BE HEAVEN opens tomorrow (November 5th) in Hong Kong. Although I appreciated the camerawork and choreography, it didn’t do much for me otherwise. I can’t imagine that it will find an audience here but these are strange times that we are living in and anything’s possible.
Watch the review recorded on Facebook Live on Friday, November 6th, 8:30 am HK time!
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