Elia Suleiman’s latest is a dryly comedic essay film on the Palestinian identity
In the same vein as his previous films, but perhaps less structured and more episodic, Elia Suleiman’s It Must Be Heaven is the director’s first feature film in ten years. Hotly anticipated and bowing at this year’s Cannes Film Festival’s official competition, this is inventive yet incoherent work that features several moments of brilliance but is perhaps far too mannered and repetitive to score a knockout. International audiences will most likely embrace the film, thanks to its out-of-the box approach and almost dialogue-free narrative that crosses language barriers and presents a somber vision of the world we live in today.
Playing himself once again, Elia Suleiman is an elderly man living in Palestine. He is more of an observer than a resident, watching life unfold around him as he struggles to understand how the future of the country might look like. In conversations with neighbors and passers-by, in which he never utters a word but listens to the stories being told to him, Suleiman starts to feel like he is part of an uncertain, decaying present in which hatred and injustice still reign.
Aiming to fund his next film, titled It Must Be Heaven (a meta-reference to the actual film audiences are watching), he travels to Paris to meet a producer. In the film’s pivotal scene, the producer rejects the scripts saying it’s not ‘Palestinian’ enough. Suleiman strongly comments on the narrative the media and film studios are trying to push for Palestine, relegating it into stereotypes and clichés that, in many ways, remain as detached from reality as possible. Following the rejection, Suleiman visits New York where he encounters another rejection simply due to lack of interest.
In traveling between Palestine, New York and Paris, Suleiman observes similarities and differences as well as defining traits that paint a larger picture of the world as we live in it today. Where there’s no compassion, there’s racism, threats and loneliness – and no matter where he travels, these themes remain present.
The film has several major moments of brilliance, thanks to a piercing screenplay that employs silence, sound and physical comedy, to offer a biting social and political commentary about Palestinian identity. In choosing to reduce dialogue as much as possible, Suleiman creates a visual experience that works more than it doesn’t, but feels ultimately a bit too incoherent and somehow random. While some of the set pieces register strongly on creative and narrative levels, others fall into repetition, vagueness or indulgent traps that takes away from the overall impact of the film. The mannerism that is Suleiman’s signature style works in most scenes but sort of overstays its welcome when the film attempts to maintain its social critiques but ends up overly bleak. In seeking relevance and satire, the film achieves this along with a bit of alienation due to overly long or repetitive tropes that could have been easily lost to offer a clearer view of the world in Suleiman’s eyes.
Nevertheless, and despite the pacing and structural flaws, It Must Be Heaven remains very unique, inventive and at times touching. A welcome return for Suleiman whose voices remains one of the freshest and most urgent voices in Middle Eastern cinema today.