Cian Geoghegan finds everywhere the same.
Palestinian filmmaker Elia Suleiman, the director of the delightful and moving It Must Be Heaven, is the latest in a prestigious line of auteur comedians. His carefully crafted mise-en-scène elevates his own lead performance, itself the comic centrepiece of the film. In this respect, Suleiman is the heir to Charlie Chaplin and Jacques Tati, two directors who use their own comic presence as a launchpad for precise social commentary. The auteur comedian is predisposed to making the viewer laugh, but they are not deterred from making them think, even if lesser comedians may find the two mutually exclusive.
Suleiman follows the model of the comedian as truth-teller, and his truth is stridently political. Chaplin too was a polemicist writing about his own time, from the post-crash struggles of labour and capital in Modern Times to the fascist threat attacked in The Great Dictator. Tati, meanwhile, painted the industrialised Paris of Playtime as cold, alien and woefully inefficient. Comedy was not an escape from the troubles of modern life, but a highlighter pen with which to spotlight each political issue as it arose. Despite their material concerns, these comedies do not carry the self-seriousness that poisons some of the worst attempts at comedy or drama.
Suleiman’s approach to comedy may test the patience of some. His comic routines lack the tightly rehearsed stuntwork of Chaplin. His most intricately blocked sequences show characters caught in (or trying to avoid) prolonged eye contact. In small moments of social awkwardness, Suleiman ensures that every look and gesture, however minute, carries the impact of a pratfall. This kind of comedy is unlikely to take the world by storm – as its journey from Cannes competition to its modest release at the IFI reflects. However, It Must Be Heaven really is worth the look, and deserves a wider audience than it is bound to get. Suleiman’s arthouse approach may alienate the standard comedy audience, or rather the assumptions of film distribution will foresee the alienation and adjust accordingly. Yet, the dreaded label of ‘pretentious’ could not possibly be thrown at It Must Be Heaven, as the film is deftly self-aware of its own purpose and limitations. It never posits itself too highly, or claims to have answers to the world’s many conflicts. Indeed, a least pretentious type of film does not exist.
The plot, such as it is, follows Suleiman (playing himself as a filmmaker of few words) through life in Tel Aviv, Paris and New York as he attempts to write and find financing for a film project. Each city is deftly observed and critiqued through comic interludes – the Tel Aviv military police oddly mirror the city’s many street gangs, tanks parade through an empty Paris inexplicably and every New Yorker in Suleiman’s local supermarket is strapped with some kind of automatic weapon.
The over-policing and militarization of daily life is clearly the film’s chief thematic concern. Suleiman’s character never enters into a confrontation with the police. He does not paint himself as the hero that fearlessly throws himself into harm’s way. Instead, he stands back and looks. The passive observer, actively engaged in polemical screed in his own mind, makes little actual change to his surroundings. The film illustrates this observation, while never forgetting its practical futility. Certainly, the lone observer cannot bring about change as an army of one, particularly in the face of such military power. Suleiman does not wish to fool himself, or the viewer, with a fantasy of easy emancipation.
In the New York leg of the film, Suleiman visits a fortune teller. He wants him to answer one question: at some point, in the future, will there be a Palestinian state? The fortune teller looks over his cards, flipping and shuffling them inexplicably, before affirming, “Yes, there will be Palestine.” Then a pause. He mumbles and shuffles the cards some more. Suleiman is thrown off base – will there be Palestine or not? The teller concludes that there will be Palestine, long into the future, and neither him nor Suleiman will live to see it.
The scene is emblematic of the film’s minimalist yet overpowering sense of humour. The brief hiccup in the fortune telling drew a big laugh from the small, socially distanced crowd in the screening this reviewer attended. Its content is politically cognisant, perhaps even transgressive in the territories where mention of Palestine as an entity is taboo. Yet the scene does not extend itself beyond its own bounds. Suleiman’s film is not bringing this Palestine into being, or witnessing it bloom. It is merely asking the question, will there be Palestine, and offering an unpretentious non-answer.
It Must Be Heaven is a brave example of the kind of political dissent that occurs outside of revolutions and riots – the quiet, timid kind of struggle that is constantly coursing beneath the surface of any society, occupied or not. Suleiman and his films will not lead to a one- or two-state solution in Israel and Palestine, and of this he is all too aware. Art often behaves like it has the influence to bring about real, sweeping change – the few historical cases of this feel like complete anomalies, statistically negligible. Suleiman instead shows his own lack of political power in honest, comic terms. The result is a powerful, endearing work that moves the viewer, without giving them the illusion that their consumption constitutes action. Such a clear-headed political cinema is surprisingly rare, and worth championing.
It Must Be Heaven is currently on release in selected cinemas.