This deadpan, extremely dry Palestinian comedy takes us from Nazareth to Paris to New York City, and everywhere you look the streets are often eerily empty – they’re real-world stages ready for one of writer-director-actor Elia Suleiman’s lightly absurdist gags. Suleiman’s films, including ‘Divine Intervention’ and ‘The Time That Remains’, take a thoughtful, comic-book approach to life, and are both sort-of funny and sort-of political. Now in his late fifties, Suleiman has established a style that’s fully present in this loosely connected series of vignettes, which see him appear as an almost entirely silent, quizzical version of himself. He often looks into the camera and always seems just one beat away from raising an eyebrow and sighing at us and the world.
We begin and end in Palestine, but it’s the chapters in France and the United States that have the most impact, as Suleiman’s alter ego visits movie production companies in an attempt to make a new film. In France, he’s told his films need to be ‘more Palestinian’, while in NYC he’s barely acknowledged and accompanied by actor-director Gael Garcia Bernal, who is himself wrestling with an offer to make an English-language film version of the Hernán Cortés story. The best moments offer surreal humour comparable to the films of the Swedish director Roy Andersson: tanks rolling through the streets of Paris on Bastille Day; French cops dancing in unison on Segways; everyday folks wearing guns on their backs in a Whole Foods-style NY supermarket; or Suleiman trying to write on his laptop while constantly pushing away an encroaching little bird, like the moving arm of an old typewriter. It’s a great visual joke.
Not everything in ‘It Must Be Heaven’ has the same impact. Suleiman leans heavily on his own expressionless gaze – and how much more can we be expected to read into it? Always around the corner is a moment that indirectly reminds us of Suleiman’s homeland and status as an artist wrestling with whether or not – or how – to represent the situation in Palestine in his art. Much of the film offers the bemused outlook of the wide-eyed traveller, and the tone is so light and unassuming that it threatens to float away at points. Yet there are enough sharp and amusing moments to keep it tethered to the ground. It’s the comedy of a world-weary clown.