Ten years since his last film, renowned Palestinian filmmaker Elia Suleiman makes a welcome return to the fore. At its premiere at Cannes, It Must Be Heaven was selected for the Palme d’Or, garnered a Special Jury Mention and received a standing ovation. It’s not hard to see why: his latest is at once a charming, deadpan study of national identities, an idiosyncratic love letter to his home and an unvarnished tribute to life’s universal absurdities.
It Must Be Heaven’s key scene comes in around the halfway mark, in which Suleiman – playing himself in self-imposed exile from his homeland – visits a Parisian film producer to discuss the production of his new film. The producer proudly explains to the director his studio’s ethos – “our films don’t make a lot of money; we make them because they have something to say”. Suleiman looks on, silent (as he is throughout the majority of the film), and with his permanent Keatonesque expression of put-upon bafflement. The producer goes on: “we’d love to work with you, but we can’t on this. It’s not Palestinian enough”; hardly a subtle cue that the film they’re discussing is the one we’re watching, but also a remark on the narratively expectations of what Palestinian art is capable of saying, and by extension, global expectations and assumptions of national identity and experience.
These assumptions follow Elia on his travels, though most are somewhat benign: a New York cabbie is delighted when he learns where his passenger is from (the only moment in the film when Suleiman speaks), though we’re never quite sure why. Is it mere exoticism, or solidarity with the Palestinian struggle? It’s hard to believe that a seasoned New Yorker treats all foreigners this way, so what is so special about Elia? We can only guess: the cabbie never asks any other questions, though at least he does give Elia the ride for free.
That sense of misaligned perspective runs both ways, too. When Elia visits a café in Paris, he watches in delight as a parade of beautiful Parisians saunters past. A POV shot of the women returning his gaze as the Nina Simone song “I Put A Spell On You” plays. It’s a weird moment of cliché (not to mention a tad creepy) in a film brimming with original imagery. Nevertheless, it hints at Elia’s own set of assumptions about a part of the world far removed from his own: an exotic city populated with gorgeous, stylish young women sauntering down boulevards in slow motion. This moment of mundane voyeurism is soon juxtaposed with some wonderfully surreal vignettes: a trio of cops dancing on segways, and then a homeless man receiving emergency medical attention in the form of a high-class meal delivered by an ambulance.
The bizarre moments that Elia witnesses abroad echo that which he witnesses in Nazareth. Indeed, the absurdities (which work both at comic face value and as metaphors for Palestinian experience more broadly) that initially drive him away eventually call him home. His return gives us a representation of Palestine rarely, if ever, glimpsed: youthful, carefree and full of joy. For a film that is accused of not being Palestinian enough, It Must Be Heaven is a wonderful affirmation of an ineffably Palestinian perspective on the world.