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Non-Review Review: It Must Be Heaven

This film was seen as part of the Virgin Media Dublin International Film Festival 2020. Given the high volumes of films being shown and the number of reviews to be written, these may end up being a bit shorter than usual reviews.

It Must Be Heaven offers a Chaplin-esque meditation on what it means to be “a citizen of the world,”, albeit filtered through a Palestinian lens.

Writer and director Elia Suleiman neatly divides his comedy into three acts. Playing himself, the veteran Palestian director journeys from Palestine in a bid to finance his latest movie. First, he visits Paris. Then, he visits New York. Along the way, he acts a silent and deadpan observers of the chaos of the world around him. Over the course of the film Suleiman only talks on a handful of occasions. Indeed, it would be handy enough to exorcise those sequences and reduce him to a classic silent film protagonist. However, the world buzzes around him.

So much of It Must Be Heaven is a purely observational film. Suleiman drifts idly from one scene to the next, always watching with mild bemusement as he steps into another story that is already in progress, often without any larger context: a father and son squabble across the balconies of their shared home, two brothers threaten a restaurant owner for serving wine in their sister’s food, a woman marches slowly and certainly from a well carrying two containers of water in a rather relaxed relay. Sometimes narratives reveal themselves through the act of looking, and sometimes they don’t. Such is life.

It Must Be Heaven seems more like a resigned sigh than a profound statement, a candid acknowledgement of how people are strange all over, even if some places offer their own unique brands of eccentricity.

It Must Be Heaven is very clearly indebted to silent cinema. Suleiman casts himself in a role similar to that of Charlie Chaplin’s iconic character of “the Tramp.” He is a thoughtful and reserved figure capable of considerable compassion, but he is often confused and disoriented by the peculiarities of the world in which he finds himself. Outside of one small sequence involving an unexpected avian visitor in Paris, Suleiman largely avoids leaning into physical comedy. Instead, he leans heavily on his own reaction to things. So much of It Must Be Heaven is about Suleiman watching and observing, as if soaking in the larger world.

It Must Be Heaven suggests that the world is fundamentally an insane place. To be fair, the film seems to suggest that it has always been so. The final third even features an extended riff on Chaplin’s studio stablemates, the Keystone Cops, enlisting the New York City Police Department in an increasingly absurd chase sequence that often involves having characters crossing the frame or hiding within the frame. Suleiman skillfully employs the classic tropes of silent cinema, as if underscoring how these templates are still a reliable source of comedy and amusement.

However, It Must Be Heaven is more than just an affectionate love letter to silent cinema. This is perhaps most obvious in the way that the film uses certain conventions of the form. Like a lot of those silent comedies, It Must Be Heaven leans on rather static framing, often putting the audience literally in Suleiman’s shoes, as observers of the world through the director’s eye. However, It Must Be Heaven repeatedly and consciously invites the audience to wonder if the world even exists outside that frame.

Suleiman often allows characters to enter and leave (and even re-enter) the frame, so as to suggest a closed-loop quality to these little vignettes. It Must Be Heaven rarely cuts to a scene in progress, instead allowing the scene-in-progress to effectively wander into Suleiman’s field of vision and then wander out of it. Indeed, It Must Be Heaven is often built around the framing. No matter where characters are in the frame, it often seems like they can see no more than Suleiman’s camera. (This is most obvious in the Central Park sequence, where being invisible to the audience renders a character completely invisible.)

There is something surprisingly evocative in all of this, largely because of Suleiman’s canny choice to say less rather than more. On a certain level, It Must Be Heaven plays as a gentle mockery of auteur theory. The film returns time and time again to ideas of faith – it opens on a religious procession and the third act includes a tarot reading – suggesting a concern about divine authority in the world. Suleiman is the architect of this world that he has created, but It Must Be Heaven stresses how little even he seems to understand it. He just wanders through it, as if trapped inside his own movie.

There is something close to divinity to be found in It Must Be Heaven, albeit a divinity quite far removed from the trappings of processions or fortune tellers. There are points at which the protagonist of It Must Be Heaven feels like a confused and bemused authority gazing upon his creation with a sense of mild befuddlement. Characters in It Must Be Heaven are very rarely aware of Suleiman’s presence; street gangs rush past him, police officers take measurements around him. When characters do acknowledge Suleiman and ask him questions, it quickly becomes clear that he is not what they are looking for.

It Must Be Heaven often struggles to make sense of the world, often providing snippets of life removed from a larger context for maximum surreality. During his visit to Paris, Suleiman notices fighter jets flying over the city, tanks moving through the streets and horse-mounted troops riding between arches. These are unusual sights, particularly in a city that seems surprisingly empty. It is only later on that it becomes clear how these elements fit together, through news footage playing on a television behind a window; a screen within a screen, far removed from the actual or immediate experience.

While Suleiman’s framing evokes the visual language of silent cinema, It Must Be Heaven features impressive sound design. It Must Be Heaven cleverly captures the actual ambient soundtrack of its surroundings. The version of Paris presented in It Must Be Heaven really sounds like Paris, particularly the sound of the city’s underground. The film’s New York soundscape feels more organic and genuine than most films set against the backdrop of the city that never sleeps. This provides It Must Be Heaven with a sense of texture and geography, making it feel like more than a series of disconnected vignettes.

To be fair, the film’s most awkward moments stem from attempts at specificity, as Suleiman swaps more general observations for more pointed references. There is, for example, a strange extended sequence shortly after his arrival in Paris that seems to be built around the insight that “Parisians are horny.” Similarly, one dream sequence on his arrival in New York offers no more profound insight on the country’s character than “Americans like guns.” These are the points at which It Must Be Heaven feels least insightful and its surreality feels least convincing. After all, these are practically cultural clichés.

At the same time, there is something interesting in this approach. It Must Be Heaven is a film that is only really possible in the twenty-first century and which is firmly anchored in the context of Elia Suleiman as a Palestinian director. In a brief cameo, Gael García Bernal stresses that Suleiman is “not a Palestinian from Israel – he is a Palestinian from Palestine.” On his trip to New York, an interviewer describes Suleiman as a “perfect stranger” for this “stranger in a strange land.” The tarot card reader promises Suleiman that “Palestine will be free”, even if he hedges by insisting neither will live to see it.

It Must Be Heaven suggests that Suleiman can only truly exist as an outsider because of the unique position of Palestine. Indeed, It Must Be Heaven repeatedly juxtaposes the opening act set in Nazareth to the later adventures in Paris and New York. While each of the three acts are comedic, the first act is infused with a sense of tragedy and longing that is pointedly absent from the adventures that follow. More than that, the first act of It Must Be Heaven is constantly inflected with a threat of violence that is absent from the sequences that follow.

Gangs armed with wrenches wander the streets of Nazareth, while bruised and bloody victims wander by indifferent police officers. Similarly, a comedy sequence in which two soldiers swap sun glasses on an afternoon road trip takes a rather sinister turn when Suleiman notices the blindolded passenger in their back seat. In contrast, the show of military force in Paris is a source of pride and humour, rather than dread and anxiety. Similarly, Suleiman’s vision of a New York City where everybody is carrying firearms is a source of comedy rather than terror, while welcoming taxi drivers offer free rides to exotic tourists.

This is the beauty and the paradox of It Must Be Heaven. At the heart of the film is the observation that people are strange all over the world, complicated and contradictory creatures that are often difficult to understand but amusing to watch. As the world grows smaller, that similarity becomes even more pronounced; it is possible to be confused and impressed by the inhabitants of Nazareth, Paris and New York. At the same time, It Must Be Heaven understands that these realities operate in a different context. Tanks and fighter jets mean something different in Paris than they would in Palestine.

It Must Be Heaven is delightful, a film with a surprisingly emotional depth beneath a polished and amusing surface.

I don’t normally rate films, but the Virgin Media Dublin International Film Festival asks the audience to rank a film from 1 (worst) to 4 (best). In the interest of full and frank disclosure, I ranked this film: 3

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