Monday, January 20, 2020

246. Palestinian director Elia Suleiman’s fifth feature film “It Must Be Heaven” (2019): A marvellous visual treat and a film appropriately dedicated to John Berger and the director’s late parents

Elia Suleiman’s fifth feature film It Must Be Heaven is one of four important films made in 2019 with semi-autobiographical components from the life of the four respective filmmakers.  The three others films are  Spanish director Pedro Almodovar’s Pain and Glory, US/Italian director Abel Ferraro’s  Tommaso and the British director Joanna Hogg’s The Souvenir.  Among the four films, only It Must Be Heaven has its director appearing in front of the camera and that too without hiding under a fictional name/alter ego.

Director Elia Suleiman as he appears in the film,
travelling in a Parisian metro train

Mr Suleiman’s film has the director appearing with a signature hat and wearing a dark jacket and spectacles. He does not speak a word while others talk to him. He is obviously absorbing activities physically close to him, sometimes perplexed, sometimes bemused, and sometimes immersed in thought.  The viewer would see parallels between his screen persona and Jacques Tati’s Monsieur Hulot in Tati’s films Mr Hulot’s Vacation, My Uncle, Playtime and Traffic.  Unlike Tati’s four films with the fictional Hulot as an extension of Tati, Suleiman prefers to be identified by his real identity Elia Suleiman, the Palestinian film director, delicately comparing the no-win situation for Palestinians within Palestine with parallel situations for a Palestinian or any person of colour or limited means living (or visiting) in France and in USA.  Why France and the US? The director explained, in an interview, that he had lived in each of those two countries for 14 years apiece. For those viewers who are familiar with John Berger’s seminal book on art appreciation Ways of Seeing and the related TV series made in 1972 will see the connection between Berger’s work and  ways to approach (as a viewer) Suleiman’s It Must Be Heaven. Berger had maintained in his book that “photographs always need language and a narrative to make complete sense.” The visuals of It Must Be Heaven become richer with the spoken words and narrative structure of the film. Thus a viewer who misses out on the director’s dedication statement at the end of the film or one who does not know about John Berger and his book will only get a diluted taste of the film’s rich visual, seemingly unconnected, episodes that are actually strung like beads of an ornate necklace.

A Palestinian man drinking Scotch whiskey but upset that his sister
has been served food with wine as an ingredient, as women are not
supposed to imbibe wine or liquor

What is admirable about the film It Must Be Heaven is its ability to criticize Palestinians while making a film that is indirectly supporting their cause. The opening sequence is of a Greek Orthodox Easter ritual (in Bethlehem?) where a bishop, leading his flock of worshippers, knocks three times on the door of a holy crypt expecting it to be opened from inside by the church staff.  The inebriate person behind the door refuses to open the door, until the irate Bishop removes his religious headgear and physically forces the inebriate individual to open the crypt door by accessing the crypt through another entrance. The viewer can hear the distinct breaking of a bottle, possibly by the angry Bishop. Suleiman is criticizing both the church and the inebriate Palestinians. The director Suleiman is a Palestinian Christian. In another tableau, reminiscent of Roy Anderssons’ films, Suleiman while sitting in a restaurant in Palestine watches two Muslim male Palestinians sitting on another table and imbibing Scotch whiskey, while their sister is eating on the same table. Suddenly they complain about the food served to their sister to the restaurant owner about a change in the taste of the dish, which their sister had enjoyed in the past.  The restaurant owner explains that the dish has been prepared with a dash of wine for the first time to enhance the taste. The explanation only angers the men as their sister is not permitted to consume liquor (for religious reasons?) and their anger is doused by the restaurant owner who offers them free Scotch whiskey to make amends for having served a food preparation that contained wine. Then there are Palestinians who steal their neighbour’s lemons in the guise of tending the lemon trees, men who tell unbelievable  tales of snakes who fill air in a flat tire and repair it and a woman who trudges a distance multiple times because she is carrying two vessels of water, one vessel at a time.

Suleiman takes swipes at the callous attitudes of Israeli policemen in two separate vignettes. In one, Suleiman, driving his car, passes an Israeli police car with its two policemen switching their sunglasses playfully, while a blindfolded Palestinian woman (arrested, one assumes) sits behind them quietly.  In another vignette, two Israeli policemen are busy with a set of binoculars, while close at hand a vagrant urinates on the street and smashes his liquor bottle, not attracting the attention of those cops.

Director Suleiman in Paris, in front of a shop appropriately
named "The Human Comedy"

All these delectable/critical views of “home” (Palestine + Israel) are contrasted and compared with Suleiman’s “homes away from home” (France + USA) in the latter part of It Must Be Heaven.

The film director returns to France and then to USA seeking financial support for his next film. The converse visuals in France and in USA, appear to be unconnected but are sending messages for perceptive viewers.  In a Parisian near-empty metro rail car a menacing young man glares at the docile Suleiman, and the viewer expects an ugly event, until you see him eventually playing with beer cans. The viewer has to put the sequence in perspective with another one earlier in the film where Suleiman is walking on a lonely street in Palestine/Israel when he sees that he is followed by menacing youngsters with sticks. As in the Paris metro sequence, we soon realize that the scary youths have targets other than the lonely, apprehensive Suleiman. The John Berger elements come into play on both continents, in parallel situations, within the film.

Director Suleiman sitting in front of a bistro/restaurant,
while the policemen check the distance of the furniture from the road,
to see if it conforms to rules

Similarly Suleiman doesn’t merely poke fun at Israeli policemen; he draws parallels with Paris policemen measuring the seating area of French restaurants/bistros that spill on to the sidewalka with help of measuring tapes, cops riding Segways (electric scooters) as though they were ballerinas dancing on a road theatre  (touches of Tati?) pursuing a criminal on the run. In USA, too, airport police are very suspicious of foreigners like Suleiman and ask him step aside for a detailed physical check, while men and women openly carry guns into US supermarkets while doing their shopping. In New York’s Central Park, a woman dressed as an angel disrobes in public, while cops swoop in on her.

In Paris, the street cleaners are all blacks: in USA, the upmarket women’s wear boutique kept lit in the night to attract potential customers is cleaned by a black woman. who obviously cannot afford the clothes on display. 

Suleiman waiting outside a prospective producer's office
to seek funds for his next film 

In this Palestinian film, where spoken words from the protagonist (the director of the film) are totally missing, songs are carefully chosen to make-up for this silence. Surprisingly but fittingly it includes the song Darkness written and sung by Leonard Cohen, a Canadian secular Jew, who sings:

I got no future,
I know my days are few
The present's not that pleasant
Just a lot of things to do
I thought the past would last me
But the darkness got that too

When the famous Mexican actor Gael Garcia Bernal introduces Suleiman to a female producer in USA, the producer considers Suleiman as Palestinian from Israel when Garcia corrects her that he is a Palestinian from Palestine. When told that Suleiman is making a comedy film on peace in the Middle East, the quick, acerbic, negative response is “That is already funny. Yes, It Must Be Heaven, is an indirect comedy about Palestinians and their aspirations for a separate state distinct from Israel, which Suleiman firmly believes (put in the words mouthed by a tarot card reader in the film) will eventually happen but perhaps not in his lifetime. Is heaven in USA or in France or is it in Palestine itself for the Palestinian people? That is the rhetorical question posed by the filmmaker. 

For me, this was the most rewarding film among the four 2019 autobiographical films mentioned earlier, not merely for its content but more for its humour and detailed observations of people and their behaviour.  John Berger would have approved, so would Suleiman’s dead parents.

P.S.  It Must Be Heaven is one of the author’s top 20 films of 2019. The film won the FIPRESCI  prize and a Special Mention from the competition jury at the Cannes Film Festival and the Eurimages Award at the Seville European Film Festival. Pedro Almodovar’s Pain and Glory and Abel Ferraro’s Tommaso are also on the author’s top 20 films list of 2019. However, Divine Intervention, an earlier work of the same director does not offer even a remote semblance of the maturity of It Must Be Heaven.