In his latest film, It Must Be Heaven, Elia Suleiman continues to explore the absurdity and tragedy of being Palestinian, and weaves in a moving contemplation of the ageing body. By Christos Tsiolkas.

Elia Suleiman’s It Must Be Heaven

Elia Suleiman in It Must Be Heaven.
Elia Suleiman in It Must Be Heaven.
Credit: Carole Bethuel

Elia Suleiman’s It Must Be Heaven, which won the Jury Prize at Cannes last year but due to the Covid-19 crisis is only now getting a theatrical release in Australia, begins with an Orthodox priest in Nazareth leading his Easter congregation through a narrow alley of the old city. The believers are chanting as they approach an ancient church gate. The priest raps on the doors, only to be denied permission to enter. We don’t know why approval has been denied. We only hear the voices of the guards inside. Like a boxer preparing to enter the ring, the priest removes his koukoulion, rolls up the sleeves of his robe and walks into the church through a back entrance. We hear the sounds of the priest slapping the guards and we hear the men’s pleading and apologies. The priest flings the gate open and the congregation recommences its chanting, entering the church.

As always, nimbly and with a wicked comic sense, Suleiman introduces us to the surreal world of Palestinian existence, where the threat of violence always simmers just below the surface of the everyday, and where regulations and prohibitions are often unnamed and seemingly ridiculous. He is deeply influenced by two of the greatest comic directors in cinema history, Buster Keaton and Jacques Tati, and like those filmmakers creates meticulous absurdist worlds of authority and surveillance. Suleiman shares Tati’s great talent to imagine and then create his own idiosyncratic spatial architecture, so the world we view in his films is at once familiar and strange.

In It Must Be Heaven he utilises highly stylised and elegantly composed tableaus, in which he is always a silent observer. Two hard-drinking men berate a waiter for daring to serve a meal doused in alcohol to their sister. Are they offended on behalf of their sibling, or is it a ploy to get some free drinks? A man picks fruit from a neighbour’s citrus tree, and then waters and tends to the garden. Are his intentions honourable or is it an attempt to appropriate his neighbour’s plot? We get the sense every interaction involves second-guessing, and that daily life is a constant negotiation of conflict. Suleiman directs his actors to be deliberately theatrical in their gestures and performances, again emphasising a state in which everyone is aware of being under constant observation. Yet, as with the priest in the opening scene, Suleiman never condescends to or stands in self-righteous judgement of his characters.

The first of Suleiman’s films I saw was 2002’s Divine Intervention, and it was revelatory, firstly because of Suleiman’s phenomenal control as a filmmaker, and also for daring to make comedy out of one of the most intractable and unjust of all global conflicts, the denial of a homeland for the Palestinian people. Divine Intervention, which won the Jury Prize at Cannes in the year of its release, had the shock of the innovative when I saw it. I had never before quite felt that permission to laugh at a situation – the plight of the Palestinians – that had always been depicted with utmost seriousness or tragic weight. Seven years later Suleiman made The Time That Remains, which I think is an even greater film. The comedy is still there, as is the bemusement, but that film reaches back into Suleiman’s own family history to evoke the tragedy of the Palestinians’ dispossession by Israel since 1948.

It Must Be Heaven doesn’t have the audacious jolt for an audience that Divine Intervention did, nor does it have the operatic sweep of The Time That Remains. It is a much quieter film. Playing himself in the film, Suleiman leaves Nazareth for Paris and New York to try to get some money to finance a film. There is a great sequence in Paris where he is politely and with excruciating pomposity told by a film producer that his new script isn’t “Palestinian enough”. There is also some delightful poking fun at the absurdity of European Union laws, capturing both the benign and coercive aspects to much contemporary regulation.

However, though the Parisian scenes are as scrupulously composed as those in Nazareth, they seem static in comparison. We understand that Suleiman is being tongue in cheek in inserting himself in depopulated vistas of Notre Dame and the Louvre, but there are no comic payoffs or great insights generated from those moments. They remain pretty postcards. Apart from the obnoxious film producer, there aren’t any other distinctive characters in these sequences for Suleiman to play against, and this also accentuates the shapelessness of the scenes. I adore the weathered grace of Suleiman’s face, but he isn’t physically as capable a performer as Keaton or Tati. The film feels shambolic in this middle section.

Thankfully, the pace picks up when Suleiman arrives in New York. He seems genuinely fascinated by the contradictions of the United States, where violence is as endemic as in his homeland but where ethnic and racial singularity is corporatised. His puzzled reactions to a supermarket full of shoppers with guns, and to a conference of Palestinian artists that seems as much an evangelical revival meeting as it does a political discussion, form some of the funniest sequences in the film.

There’s also a wonderfully facetious cameo by Gael García Bernal, who is also in the US trying to drum up money for a film he wants to make about the colonisation of Mexico. Deftly, humorously, Suleiman and Bernal communicate their solidarity as non-Western filmmakers as well as the inevitable competition and division that come from their scrambling for money. This self-reflexivity skirts dangerously close to indulgence but it is tempered by a moving acknowledgement by Suleiman of the wearing effects of age on both dreams and aspirations. This is true for him as a filmmaker and as a Palestinian.

Age, and the limitations of the body, are themes subtly woven into It Must Be Heaven. They culminate in a scene where Suleiman visits a tarot card reader, and we hear the clairvoyant’s answer to a question that is never asked in the film but is central to everything we have witnessed. “Yes,” the fortune teller exclaims triumphantly, “There will be a Palestine.” And then with the turning of another card, he adds sadly, “But neither of us will be alive to see it.”

This contemplation of age makes sense of a scene in Paris that has troubled some reviewers of the film. Suleiman sits at a cafe and, in an extended slow-motion montage, we share his point of view as a parade of stylish and attractive women walk past. Ostensibly, the scene grates as a stereotypically sexist fetishising of young women. But I think Suleiman is very much aware of what he is doing here. If any of the women notice him, it is only to turn away in disdain. For the young women he might as well not exist. It is the film’s coda that makes sense of this scene, and also makes sense of the constant tension between observing and being observed – of having to perform being Palestinian – that is at the heart of Suleiman’s filmmaking.

In the final scene, Suleiman has returned to Nazareth and is getting drunk at a bar. A group of young Palestinians are dancing. They are straight and they are queer. The music shifts and it is a dance remix of the song “Arabiyon Ana” by Lebanese singer Yuri Mrakadi. The title translates to “I am an Arab” and the defiance of the song’s lyrics is echoed in the ecstatic response of the dancers. The music rises and the bodies move in sensual unison in the crammed bar. The euphoria of the moment returns us to the beginning of the film, to the more muted rapture of the Orthodox Christian chanting. It’s a different form of resurrection from that pledged to by the priest, but it is still a promise. The music becomes louder and louder.

As in the Paris cafe sequence, Suleiman is the old man, always the outsider, watching from his corner. It is exhilarating and it is deeply affecting. His desire doesn’t need to be spoken out loud. The old man is hoping that these young people will one day have what the Parisians and the New Yorkers take for granted. He is praying that these children will have a homeland, that one day they will see a Palestine.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on June 27, 2020 as "Heaven’s stakes".

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Christos Tsiolkas is the author of The Slap, Barracuda and Damascus. He is The Saturday Paper’s film critic.

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