It Must Be Heaven: Elia Suleiman's Message Gets Lost In The Magic

CANNES – Elia Suleiman has made very few films over his career. In truth, “It Must Be Heaven,” which premiered at the 2019 Cannes Film Festival, is only his fourth film since 1996. When he does release new work, however, it’s always a reminder of what wondrous filmmaking talents he posses. That’s what makes the end result of his latest film so puzzling.

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Suleiman plays himself in the picture, but unless you recognized him from an interview or previous films you wouldn’t realize that until about halfway through. What we are presented with is a middle-aged man with a fine sense of style who lives quietly by himself in either Palestine or Lebanon (ever quite clear). He keeps catching his neighbor picking lemons from the gigantic lemon tree in his yard and has compassion for his much older neighbor who appears to be suffering early signs of dementia. The police are blind to the everyday people pissing on the street or throwing bottles at statues and gangs run through the streets in search of somebody.  Throughout all of this Sulieman as Suleiman never speaks though only reacting to the events in front of him like a stranger in a strange land, which is unique when it’s his your own land (at one point of the film he does recite a few words). Charity workers pack away clothes and a wheelchair to take them off his hands. They were women’s clothes, but his mother’s? His wife’s? We are only left to guess.

Eventually, Suleiman leaves his home traveling to Paris and then New York (a not bad Montreal for New York, either). At this point, Suleiman’s directing prowess truly comes into play. He has a wonderful time creating a surreal morning on the deserted streets of Paris as Suleiman witnesses modern tanks rolling through the streets and aircraft flying overhead. You wonder if he’s experiencing a dream only to realize they are mobilizing for a holiday parade. He also has a fun time with police officers beautifully chasing suspects through the streets on hoverboards or rollerskates. Oh, and he can’t resist an amusing sequence watching people play musical chairs around a park fountain as they refuse to give them up (even an elderly woman finds herself beaten to the punch).

Paris also features a scene where Suleiman learns from a French production executive that he’s lost financing for his next film, which is clearly this one. The project is simply not enough about the Palestine conflict for them to get on board. It’s a funny moment in a film that feels like its constantly breaking the fourth wall or, perhaps more accurately, the fourth wall doesn’t exist forever. Gael Garcia Bernal appears in a similar scene in New York that is an even bigger wink at the audience.

The New York portion is the shortest of the three spots but is highlighted by another brilliantly conceived dreamlike moment. While shopping in a bodega, Suleiman sees a man walk by him and there is a handgun in his back pocket. A North American viewer might just interpret the man as an undercover or plains clothes detective on a break. But as Suleiman turns the corner he sees another shopper with a rifle on their shoulder. In fact, everyone in the grocery has one. Walking onto the sidewalk the entire city is full of citizens carrying a firearm of some kind. Even children. The sequence is flawlessly executed but you start to wonder what Suleiman is trying to say with this particular symbolism. Is it a statement about the United States’ gun control laws? Is it a comparison to how some in the world see the Palestinians living on a daily basis? It feels so out of place even compared to the fake out surrealness of Paris. But out of context? Impressive.

In a Director’s Note, Suleiman remarks, “If my previous films tried to present Palestine as a microcosm of the world; my new film ‘It Must Be Heaven’ tries to show the world as if it were a microcosm of Palestine.” That is a noble and worthy artistic goal, but Suleiman can’t completely make it gel for the viewer. His film feels more like a collection of wonderfully envisioned set pieces that don’t fully form a coherent whole. Suleiman is under no obligation to hit his audience over the head with his stated purpose for the project, but if you are going to intentionally remind the press of what you are going for then it’s already apparent that message isn’t completely clear. [B]