By Richard Porton
Published in Cinema Scope #79 (Summer 2019)
In conversations addressing the plight of what was once known as the “Third World,” one of the central debates still involves the inevitable tension between nationalism—as well as the quest for national identity—and the rather amorphous concept known as “cosmopolitanism.” In the Palestinian intellectual milieu, the work of the late Edward Said exemplified an effort to balance serious engagement with the Palestinian cause and a cosmopolitanism generated by intellectual rigour and a certain intellectual distance. Defying stereotypes associated with Palestinian militants, Said embraced “worldliness” and secularism. He also emphasized the salutary virtues of exile and celebrated the exilic life as “a model for the intellectual who is tempted, and even beset and overwhelmed, by the rewards of accommodation, yea-saying, settling in.”
On a superficial level, Elia Suleiman, whose new film It Must Be Heaven was awarded the cryptic honour of a Special Mention by the 2019 Cannes jury, would seem to be aiming for a cinematic equivalent of Saidian cosmopolitanism. While Suleiman proudly identifies as a Palestinian filmmaker, he is certainly open to eclectic international influences, and has been critically fêted for allusions to filmmakers such as Tati and Keaton in slices of art cinema that aspire to be alternately comic and poignant.
The problem with It Must Be Heaven, common to much of Suleiman’s work, is that the results don’t often coincide with his unabashed ambition—fuelled, it must be said, by unabashed egotism. His signature style—absurdist vignettes implemented with long takes and a static camera—appears to strive for a Roy Andersson-style frisson, but often comes off as merely glib. As in previous films, Suleiman fashions himself as “ES,” the ultimate world-weary observer. But instead of intellectual distance, this pose often merely conveys an overweening superciliousness, and sometimes even contempt for the objects of his derision.
The film is divided into three sections that chronicle ES’ peregrinations, episodes that take place in Suleiman’s hometown of Nazareth, a peculiarly whimsical Paris, and a New York that seems oddly generic, perhaps because these scenes were shot in Montréal. The Nazareth scenes are by far the strongest: while Suleiman is at least able to wring a few pungent metaphors from strife on his home terrain, his observations on French and American mores tend to be banal.
The film opens with a playful episode, one of the few in which Suleiman doesn’t appear onscreen with a straw hat as he ponders all and sundry with a querulous or bemused gaze. An Orthodox bishop leading his flock at Easter is frustrated by his inability to proceed with his parishioners and enter a locked iron door barred by a drunken prankster. Unlike many of the film’s vignettes, this one is intriguingly ambiguous, even, as academics like to say, “polyvalent.” As Jay Weissberg of Variety points out, “multiple metaphors can be read into the scene, most especially the idea of a people refused entry to their communal space.”
Although none of the Nazareth vignettes approach the ingenuity of the stabbing of Santa Claus in Divine Intervention (2002), there’s an empathy tinged with irony in many of ES’ brief encounters. A scene in a restaurant in which two brothers berate the owner after learning that their sister’s meal has been prepared with wine—and are then won over by complimentary glasses of Jack Daniel’s—succinctly sums up the confusing meld of modernity, tradition, and paternalism in this milieu. A gag in which ES looks on with trepidation as a local armed gang approaches but eventually runs past him on their way to some unknown prey underlines the daily tensions of an urban space where the threat of violence is always a distinct possibility.
It Must Be Heaven goes truly awry as its melancholy protagonist moves on to Paris for a business trip. The key scene depicts Suleiman’s a meeting with a producer played by Wild Bunch’s Vincent Maraval. The producer claims that he’s sympathetic to the Palestinian cause and is fond of ES’ non-didactic approach, but he passes on the fictional Suleiman’s pitch, presumably because it doesn’t deal with hot-button issues such as suicide bombers or the Occupation and is thereby commercially unviable. Given that Maraval is It Must Be Heaven’s sales agent, the scene functions as a smarmy in-joke. A subsequent, equally insiderish scene set in New York features ES tagging along with Gael García Bernal to a pitch meeting with an executive played by Nancy Grant, Xavier Dolan’s producer. The ostensible punch line is Grant’s condescending reply to Suleiman’s idea to make a comedy about strife in the Middle East: “That sounds funny already.” (Cynics will of course also conclude that this scene allows Suleiman to show off the fact that he pals around with García Bernal.)
Even though these tête-á-têtes appear to offer a reasonable analysis of how Palestinian or other “marginal” filmmakers can be stereotyped and pigeonholed, it also feeds into Suleiman’s vast reserves of self-regard. He clearly views himself as very special, a cinematic hothouse flower. In a Cinema Scope review of Suleiman’s 2009 Cannes competition entry, The Time That Remains, I bemoaned Suleiman’s lack of solidarity with other Palestinian filmmakers. Part of this lack of solidarity is aligned with the aloof pose assumed by his ES surrogate in It Must Be Heaven: he implies that it would be vulgar for producers to expect him to sully his films with anything so topical as what’s actually going on in the contemporary Middle East.
Of course, the film’s default response to this critique is the implication that the Paris and New York chapters finagle with the conventional trope of a Palestine divorced from European or American realities. Palestine is no longer a local Middle Eastern quandary, but a state of mind that permeates the West. As Suleiman observes, somewhat incoherently, in the press book: “If my previous films tried to present Palestine as a microcosm of the world, my new film…tries to show the world as if it were a microcosm of Palestine.” Unfortunately, scenes of tanks traversing familiar Parisian streets do little to convey the potentially intriguing sentiment that the carceral and often violent nature of post-Bataclan modern life that has turned even the City of Light into a European version of a war zone. A shot of French policemen zooming about on scooters just doesn’t cut it as salient political commentary. Suleiman maintains that he wants to veer away from the “falsified ‘larger’ picture” cherished by the “mass media” and focus on what “is intimate, tender, and touching.” Nevertheless, the gap between this high-minded goal and what the film actually delivers is problematic. Whereas Said dealt with the existential and political anguish of exile, Suleiman’s critique is bound up more with tourism and the cultural homogeneity it engenders. (There’s even a non sequitur when some Asian tourists approach Suleiman and ask him if his name is Bridget.)
If It Must Be Heaven’s Parisian scenes are lame, aspects of its New York interlude border on the offensive. In an opening gambit, an African-American taxi driver gushes over the fact that ES is Palestinian and repeatedly expresses his enthusiasm for “Karafat.” This seems like, to say the least, a backhanded tribute to many black Americans’ solidarity with the Palestinian cause. (This scene includes the only words uttered by Suleiman in the film, but his muteness doesn’t merit cheerleading reviewers’ tendency to dub him “Chaplinesque.”) A subsequent scene in which some Brooklyn residents casually pick up Kalashnikovs in public, apparently some sort of commentary on Americans’ easy access to guns or a critique of the NRA, is equally cringe-inducing.
It Must Be Heaven ends with an upbeat scene of hard-partying Palestinians in a nightclub, an ode to normalcy and a riposte to the “exoticism” that Suleiman bemoans in some depictions of Palestinian life. Still, it’s an anemic payoff for a movie that is clearly attempting to make some sort of elegant but pithy political statement. The fact that so many critics at Cannes embraced the film is no doubt a product of its efforts to be crowd-pleasing without partaking of the sort of engaged stance that Said believed was an integral component of committed cosmopolitanism. In It Must Be Heaven, everybody’s favourite Palestinian filmmaker tries so hard to enumerate universal truths that local knowledge becomes irretrievably lost.