A whimsical, offbeat indie comedy, “Heaven Before I Die” tells the tall tale of a young immigrant who arrives in Canada from “the Holy Land” (Palestine is coyly left unnamed, though everybody is wearing red checkered headdresses) and succeeds in overcoming a physical handicap and finding love, money and happiness, not to mention some kind of meaning in life. Pic’s imagination and gentle humor will attract fest programmers, and a good cast should help it in selected arthouse situations.
Told in the first person, Jacob’s story begins in Jerusalem or thereabouts, where his first memory as a baby is watching a belly dancer perform. He grows into a handsome young man (Andy Velasquez) whose only defect is his feet, so turned out that he walks like Charlie Chaplin. A warm family circle cushions him from the sting of being different, but finally he decides to emigrate to Toronto, where “all people are created equal.”
Instead of turning into a desperate immigrant story, pic sticks to light, ironic farce. At every turn, Jacob’s naive trustfulness is met with outrageous kindness. A small-time gentleman thief who robs cash machines (Giancarlo Giannini) takes him into his comfortable house and treats him like a son. Lovely waitress Selma (Joanna Pacula) finds him a job as a Chaplin imitator. His act with a pig gains him fame and fortune, but almost loses him his soul and Selma’s love.
Among the more amusing scenes is Jacob’s visit to a secret society called Paradise, where people dress as inspiring historical figures; “The Prophet’s” Khalil Gibran (Omar Sharif) gives Jacob some wise counsel.
Director-writer Izidore K. Musallam injects the film with an ironic tone of innocence, in a world viewers know is corrupt just beyond the edges of the screen. Pic’s achievement is to insist illogically on human goodness without sounding trite or false.
Newcomer Velasquez has fresh charm as the sensitive, slow-talking boy from the Holy Land. Both Giannini, as the gangster, and Sharif, as Gibran, are very amusing, while Pacula shines with intelligent sincerity as Jacob’s love interest. Tech work is imaginative, too, in stretching a no-doubt modest budget.