Elia Sulieman says he’d never seen a movie by Buster Keaton or Jacques Tati before he made his first feature in 1996. This may be true but these comics remain the inevitable points of comparison for his own style of silent humour. In It Must Be Heaven, Sulieman says exactly four words. When a New York taxi driver asks him where he comes from, he replies: “Nazareth. I’m a Palestinian.”
Even this unremarkable declaration has to be prised loose as Sulieman takes an age to find his voice. His idea of what’s funny is the antithesis of the noisy, vulgar comedies churned out by Hollywood, but not every viewer will appreciate the subtleties of a movie in which the lead character communicates almost entirely with his eyes.
As comedies go, It Must Be Heaven is not exactly laugh-out-loud, but it’s weirdly seductive. Sulieman is a stylish, unassuming figure who never appears without a hat. His face, with its grey whiskers and owlish spectacles, rarely deviates from a deadpan, apart from the occasional dilation of a pupil or the wrinkle of an eyebrow. Spend an hour in his company and one begins to see the world through his eyes, anticipating threats on all sides. His silence might be understood as a tactic to avoid giving offence, or indeed, giving anything away to possibly hostile interlocutors.
Like Jesus, Sulieman hails from Nazareth, but this is where the resemblance ends. The first part of the story finds him at home, where he discovers the next door neighbour raiding his lemon tree. Caught red-handed the thief explains he’s not stealing because he knocked at the door but nobody answered. Sulieman merely glares at him. From time to time the neighbour will return to do some pruning and watering as Sulieman watches in bemusement.
When he encounters the neighbour’s father in the street the old man launches into a long, rambling story about his hunting exploits, and the mystical bond he forged with a snake. Sulieman stares at him with wide eyes. In an almost deserted restaurant he watches while two surly customers strike threatening attitudes with the owner.
In every instance Sulieman says nothing. He drives to the countryside and stands looking out over the ocean. Back home he cleans out a room in which an ailing relative apparently lived, although we never learn if it was his wife, his mother, or some other relation. Suddenly he’s on a plane bound for Paris, anxiously watching the wings rattle.
The following chapters of the movie take place in Paris, then New York, as he tries to interest production companies in a proposed film, which we assume is the one we’re watching. He sits through a meeting without saying a word, even when he’s told that his treatment is “not Palestinian enough”!
His depictions of Paris and New York are familiar and utterly strange. In the former, the streets are deserted apart from choreographed groups of policemen on electric roller skates. People compete for chairs by the fountain in the Tuileries, the women all look like fashion models, tanks rumble past at the end of a street. Two Japanese tourists ask him if his name is Brigitte. His most lengthy encounter is with a sparrow that flies in through his hotel window and wants to play.
The New York taxi driver who picks him up at the airport is excited to learn he’s carrying a real Palestinian. In a grocery store Sulieman notices people packing guns – not just pistols, but rifles, machine guns and rocket launchers. He attends a meeting of Palestinian emigrés where the applause threatens to get out of control. We see him sitting on a panel with a long line of intellectuals, although he says nothing.
It may seem as if little is happening but the story hastens from one scene to the next, punctuated by bizarre, surreal interludes. It’s Sulieman’s silence that creates a sense of stasis. No matter where he is or what he does, he remains an outsider, observing events from a distance. Presumably this is what passes for a ‘Palestinian state’: not a cherished piece of land but an alienated state of mind.
Everywhere he looks, Sulieman sees signs of authority but they are oddly anodyne. The policemen in Paris measure the dimensions of pavement cafés. The ambulances serve packed lunches to derelicts. The NYPD chase a young woman dressed as an angel through Central Park. Meanwhile, the next generation of Palestinians are not filled with despair or anger, they are dancing and singing at a nightclub. Every scenario that begins as a threat will dissolve into absurdity.
It Must Be Heaven takes a broadly comical view of topics that might inspire a more dramatic response from other directors. Behind the gags (and I mean both jokes and stifled speech) there lurks the long agony of the Palestinians. In this film it takes the form of a wistful melancholy – not a public statement but a personal reflection; not an argument but a silent, satirical judgement on the follies of history.
It Must Be Heaven
Written & directed by Elia Suleiman
Starring Elia Sulieman, Tarik Kopty, Kareem Ghneim, Ali Sulman, Faris Muqabaa, Raïa Hadar, Gregoire Colin, Gael García Bernal, Fadi Sakr
France/Qatar/Germany/Canada/Turkey/Palestine, rated ??, 102 mins
Published in the Australian Financial Review, 20 June, 2020