Elia Suleiman’s latest film sees him emphasise his role as a cataloguer of experience, employing his vignette style to a story of globalised Palestine, the condition of self-imposed exile, and observe the oddities of the world as they occur before him. He addresses the charge, clearly inspired by real life, that his films commit preterition: a French producer tells him his films aren’t “Palestinian enough”; a verbose New York film professor charges him as being “the perfect stanger”.
Suleiman’s cinema is a political cinema, how could it not be? But his method of engagement is unique; his vignettes are circuitously meaningful, inviting certain readings, possibly ridiculing them. He’s interested in spaces, the incidents which occur in them: jokes, schemes, repeated cues, looks, and gestures. All this amounts to an examination of his Palestinian identity by a kind of contrasted exemplification — a reminder of Marianne Moore’s line: ‘Omissions are not accidents.’
IT MUST BE HEAVEN begins in Nazareth, Suleiman’s home, as the director’s stand-in (played by Suleiman) attempts to go about a daily existence marred by quotidian hostilities and threats. The sense of community rupture that was present in DIVINE INTERVENTION is here multiplied and made odder, more pernicious: at a bar, two brothers dine with their sister, glaring at Suleiman the entire time. Suleiman repeatedly finds a neighbour stealing lemons from another neighbour, always handy with an excuse. Lastly, as he drives to the airport, a police car is speeding next to him: in the front seats, two officers swap sunglasses and check the reflections to see which shades look coolest on who, while in the backseat sits a blindfolded young girl, uncannily pointing herself in Suleiman’s direction.
So he escapes, and his escapades are no safer. He travels to France, watching with blank astonishment as the various stupidities of European modernity demonstrate themselves before him, Tati-like: the technological buffoonery of the French police, riding Segways in beautiful circles of movement, which couldn’t be less effective in solving crime; the Paris he visits is empty (with the exception of an aggressive drunk on the metro, played with hauteur by Claire Denis regular Grégoire Colin), he realises, because it’s Bastille Day, and the tanks are rolling through the streets (the Middle East having no monopoly on militarism, he finds); but then there’s the ambulance service, giving out square meals to the homeless as a priority. Although these routines have a patina of contempt about them, Suleiman as ever sees things in the round.
Militarism is also present in New York, where he travels next, as every person he passes in the supermarket or on the street is armed to the nines with assault rifles, high-calibre pistols, and even RPGS. The highest level of despondency creeps into the film while in New York: his meetings with producers stall (despite the efforts Gael García Bernal, in small cameo), he attends a forum on Palestine that pointedly cannot take place because the audience won’t stop clapping to hear the speakers talk. Dejected, he returns to Nazareth, finding things the same as they were: except the film ends on a gesture (which was already one of the jokes in THE TIME THAT REMAINS) mixed with plenty of hope and equal despair, with an added dash of pride in the young lives who will continue, in their own subtle and persuasive ways, the Palestinian cause.
While IT MUST BE HEAVEN is not excoriating in the way DIVINE INTERVENTION is nor moving in the way of THE TIME THAT REMAINS, it is his funniest film, the comedy laced up with Suleiman’s elegant, rebarbative vision. This may well be because of his almost constant presence in the film, and his performance marshals the film around him. He’s a cosmopolitan figure here, always wearing a panama hat, nearly always silent. He speaks twice in the film, the rest of the time communicating only with quick tilts of the head, a raising of the eyebrows, and deadpan stares.
When the camera is not pointed at him in a special kind of address, the reverse angle is usually what he’s seeing: the director stands in for the camera’s gaze. So the film’s editing, portraiture, and tracking shots are all dependent on his point of view, which allows even the bizarrest skits reams of meaning: a sparrow which enters his hotel room, constantly trying to land on his keyboard as he works, becomes a question about the haunting of identity; while a paired set of tracking shots in a grove as he follows a woman alternating between the two pails of water she’s carrying, seems like it could be the world’s obliquest reference to the two-state solution.
There’s an absurdism at work which recalls (but does not denote the influence of) Roy Andersson; and the much-touted comparison with Buster Keaton doesn’t hold weight beyond how difficult it is for people or things in their universes to make them emote. Whereas Keaton tries to make the world’s machinery work in his favour, Suleiman’s double is more an observer than an active participant: the films he makes of his passiveness are his active participation.