Continuing to chart his own path in a Palestinian film landscape generally perceived as monolithic, Elia Suleiman turns his delightfully absurdist, unfailingly generous gaze beyond the physical homeland, where parallels and dissonance abound. By now Suleiman’s distinctive style is not just well-known but eagerly anticipated, his wide-eyed, expressive face forever compared with Buster Keaton as he looks out at a world full of small wonders and incongruities. It’s been a decade since the writer-director-star’s last feature, and while “It Must Be Heaven” has all his hallmarks, the vision shifts from the struggle in Palestine to the condition of the global Palestinian. Whimsical and wistful yet infused with a yearning for the stability of place, “Heaven” will have gates opened throughout the European indie circuit and potentially further afield.
Suleiman’s previous three features saw him as witness to the surreal in Palestinian life, always linked to individuals rather than to ideology and relishing the minutiae of daily life in the Occupied Territories, where a hefty dose of humor is needed at the most unexpected moments. “Heaven” begins in Palestine — Nazareth, to be precise — before moving to Paris and New York, where what it means to be Palestinian is circumscribed by expectations bearing little relationship to the reality at home. Always his own protagonist, Suleiman’s robe of bemusement protects a more fragile body both at home and abroad, where the possibility of exile adds a further level of destabilization: What does it mean to carry one’s roots to a different soil?
“Heaven” has a certain narrative linearity but is made up of small vignettes, frequently beginning with an observational shot, then cutting to Suleiman watching the action play itself out, then editing back and forth between the two. The opening is an exception, when a bishop (Nael Kanj) leads a nighttime procession to the portal of a church, where the custodians refuse to open the doors. Multiple metaphors can be read into the scene, most especially the idea of a people refused entry to their communal space, but on a fundamental level it’s also simply a hilarious moment, as Suleiman plays the churchman’s fury before his flock for laughs.
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Suleiman’s life in Nazareth is full of such fragments, snippets of lives passing before his eyes that underscore tensions between people as well as the inherent beauty of a graceful gesture. Neighbors alternate between selfishness and generosity (the latter most often only when they know they’re being observed), leaving the impression that people broadcast fraternal solidarity but really look after their own interests.
A wheelchair, a walker, and other items belonging to a recently deceased loved one are packed away, and Suleiman leaves for Paris, where a delicious slo-mo montage of stunning young women in colorful, leg-baring outfits pass by the café where he’s seated, accompanied by Nina Simone’s “I Put a Spell on You.” Paris is seen as fulfilling all the stereotypes, yet only at the start: The choreographed dance of cops on Segways, their circular movements matching the swirling patterns of the cobblestones, is a pleasure to watch, yet the mere presence of policemen means something is amiss. An amazing sequence of army tanks rolling past the Banque de France on Bastille Day is a reminder that militarism isn’t limited to the Middle East, and while the Parisian ambulance service offers a homeless man a fine two-course meal, the threatening mien of a tattooed punk (Grégoire Colin) on the metro is a sign that menacing encounters can happen everywhere.
Suleiman has come to Paris looking for production funding for his next movie, but in a comical meeting with a producer (Vincent Maraval) undoubtedly based on real encounters, he’s told his film isn’t Palestinian enough and therefore doesn’t correspond to their profile (the art directors did a great job designing the office). In New York he faces even stronger expectations of who and what he should be, from a taxi driver (Kwasi Songui) thrilled to have a real Palestinian in his cab, to a pretentious film professor (Guy Sprung) wanting him to embody the cause in one particular way. Unlike in Paris, where the producer insisted he conform to a French vision of Palestine, the industry exec whom his friend Gael García Bernal introduces him to hasn’t the slightest interest in hearing any Palestinian story.
In each new location, Suleiman looks with wonder at the cities’ charming qualities, yet time and again, he finds echoes of familiar elements, as on a Williamsburg street corner, where everyone he sees at the supermarket or on the street casually carries a gun over his or her shoulder. It’s a funny, highly embellished moment, illustrating how foreigners perceive Americans’ enthusiastic right to bear arms.
Palestine may have pressure-cooker features, but so have most parts of the world, in their own particular way. Being a Palestinian abroad demands the dexterity of a slalom champion, constantly negotiating obstacles imposed by Western expectation, tricked by disruptive signs of familiarity and foreignness. In a club back in Palestine at the end, Suleiman watches a room packed with mixed couples raising their arms in the air and joyously dancing: It’s a vision of a vibrant, youthful population, the kind that can be seen in most cities around the world. This is Palestine, as much as the Wall, or the martyrs’ posters, or the checkpoints, and it’s telling that none of those are even glimpsed here. Instead, there’s the club and before that, peaceful olive and lemon groves with only the sounds of songbirds.
It’s not like the film ignores the Occupation — a scene of two Israeli soldiers exchanging sunglasses while a blindfolded young woman sits in the back of their car ensures that no one will think the director is pretending all’s well. But Suleiman, the eternal observer, trusts his audience already knows the facts. What they generally don’t get elsewhere is a new perspective, a different way of understanding what it means to be Palestinian in a global context. Nowhere is heaven, but that doesn’t mean he thinks his home is hell.