'It Must Be Heaven': Film Review | Cannes 2019

Cannes Film Festival
Another love letter to Palestine from a modern-day Chaplin.

From Nazareth to Paris and on to North America, Palestinian filmmaker-actor Elia Suleiman searches for the future of his native land in this Cannes competition entry.

Filmmaker and actor Elia Suleiman uses his own face and body to express the soul of Palestine in his films, and nowhere more so than in his droll new comedy, It Must Be Heaven. Fans of his trilogy comprising Chronicle of a Disappearance, Divine Intervention, which won the Cannes Jury Prize in 2002, and The Time That Remains, which competed on the Croisette in 2009, will welcome with open arms the art house rollout of this new French-German-Canadian-Turkish co-prod. It's no surprise that it contains the same close observation of paradoxical human behavior that made him famous, but the focus this time around is on the whole world, which in Suleiman’s persuasive view has become “a microcosm of Palestine.”

Filmed in his charming hometown of Nazareth and an oddly deserted Paris, with visits to New York and Montreal, a gossamer story is built around ordinary events and chance encounters. Playing himself without speaking a word for the whole film, the writer-director is an attentive, ironic observer of the human comedy in a world of global tension and paranoia. Here the search for identity and a homeland, a constant in his films, takes the form of a man looking for a quiet place to be himself and make movies.

Once it was Palestine where people got harassed by the police, humiliated and kept under surveillance. But lo and behold, the whole world has turned into a giant police state, a vast network of check points and armed citizens eyeing each other suspiciously. Control is omnipresent and uninterrupted. Suleiman’s gift is his ability to convey this uneasiness in the lightest of terms, making each scene an amusing encounter between his silent Everyman and the oddities around him. He doesn’t need overtly political topics; even an ornery sparrow will do to illustrate the obstacles in life.

The opening scene in Nazareth is guaranteed to put audiences in a happy, receptive mood. An Orthodox priest is chanting Easter verses as he leads a procession of the faithful toward a closed iron door, which is supposed to open at his command. But his unseen helper on the other side is too falling-down drunk to do his job (we guess it must be Suleiman) and the priest disappears offscreen to slap some sense into him.

Jobless now, and apparently recently bereaved, Suleiman gives away clothes and a wheelchair (possibly belonging to his elderly mother, seen in The Time That Remains) and takes stock of his freedom. He appears older in his heavy glasses, gray beard and straw hat. His neighbors are even more eccentric: one has appropriated his lemon trees, while another seems to be going batty in his old age. There is no female company in sight, just a yearning glimpse of the feet of a Bedouin girl among the olive trees. Typically passive, Elia does nothing to approach her.

On the negative side, gangs armed with baseball bats and policemen roam the streets and outnumber the inhabitants. On one trip to the country, Suleiman is driving back home when a police car comes abreast with a blindfolded girl in the back seat. Though the scene is set up as a gag about the cops exchanging sunglasses, there is that unsettling presence in the back that has no explanation.

So he takes a plane to Paris, and traditional Arab music changes to bouncy French sounds. He can’t take his eyes off the beautiful girls in short skirts and designer fashion striding confidently down the street. This scene goes on until it becomes repetitive and the girls become no more than mannequins in a video loop.

But when he takes a look outside his window, what should he see but three police officers inspecting a parked car. Again the scene is treated so lightly that its significance can easily be lost in the humor of their choreographed movements on electric scooters, one of the film’s best sight gags.

The next day, the city is eerily empty of people. A still-intact Notre Dame cathedral rises poignantly over the rooftops; then jet fighters streak overhead, tanks rumble heavily past the Banque de France, and a military parade takes place without bystanders. The only people Elia runs into are two Japanese tourists and a scary bruiser on the metro (a tattooed Gregoire Colin in black) who stares him down.

When a meeting with a film producer (played by Wild Bunch’s own Vincent Maraval) ends in a runaround, Suleiman boards another plane for the New World. But the music doesn’t change on the work front: his friend Gael Garcia Bernal, played by the Mexican actor-director himself, tries to get him five minutes with a woman producer to no avail. “It’s a comedy about peace in the Middle East,” Bernal gets in. “That’s already funny,” she rejoins distractedly. Meanwhile Suleiman silently observes ordinary people packing assault weapons in a supermarket. In Central Park, six armed cops alertly chase a girl wearing angel wings and a Palestinian flag for a top.

Rather than end with a bang, the final scene unwinds over a drink in a bar in Nazareth, where Suleiman silently watches young people partying in a disco to what might be a Palestinian song. It would have been more meaningful, one way or the other, had the lyrics been subtitled. As is, one can only guess at what the director is thinking as he observes the future of his country dancing heedlessly.

As ever, the cinematic language is painstaking controlled, yet subtle enough to pass unobserved. Sofian El Fani’s widescreen, rectilinear cinematography and careful compositions take in a lot of landscape, isolating Suleiman in the center of the screen, and the soundtrack uses a dozen well-selected songs that ably replace the missing dialogue.
Production companies: Rectangle Productions, Nazira Films, Pallas Film, Possibles Media, Zeyno Film in association with Doha Film Institute
Cast: Elia Suleiman, Tarik Kopti, George Khleifi, Nael Kanj, Gregoire Colin, Vincent Maraval, Stephen McHattie, Gael Garcia Bernal
Director-screenwriter: Elia Suleiman
Producers: Edouard Weil, Laurine Pelassy, Elia Suleiman, Thanassis Karathanos, Martin Hampel, Serge Noel
Executive producers: Fatma Hassan Alremaihi, Hanaa Issa
Director of photography: Sofian El Fani
Production designer: Caroline Adler
Costume designers: Alexia Crisp-Jones, Eric Poirier
Editor: Veronique Lange
Venue: Cannes Film Festival (competition)
World sales: Wild Bunch
101  minutes