This is director Elia Suleiman’s first film in ten years and only his fourth in 23 years. The character he plays, a modified version of himself, is often compared to Buster Keaton, but really It Must Be Heaven feels like an homage to Jacques Tati.
Silently, Suleiman watches the world go by in the three places with which he is most familiar: Nazareth, Paris and New York. He begins in his birthplace of Nazareth. Suleiman has said that he has tried to purge himself of nationalism. However, upon returning to Nazareth for this film, he explains that concerning the situation of Palestinians in Israel, “You always think there is a bottom to oppression and occupation and suffering, but you always are quite surprised to find that there is a deeper level to sadistic practices.” Although he concentrates on the eccentric behavior of his neighbors, there is a scene where Israeli soldiers in a car laugh and exchange sunglasses—while a blindfolded young woman sits in the back.
When Suleiman moves on to Paris, the spirit of Jacques Tati really kicks in. Beautiful fashionably dressed women walk by him while the soundtrack plays Nina Simone singing “I Put a Spell on You.” Police ride their electric scooters as if it is a dance routine. Social workers rouse a homeless man and serve him a gourmet meal.
In the United States, customers buy guns and rifles at a supermarket and on the street, everyone walks around armed.
But throughout It Must Be Heaven, there is the constant theme of what it means to be Palestinian in a world that can only see Palestinians as stereotypes. A New York taxi driver, upon learning Suleiman’s nationality, calls home and says, “I have a real Palestinian in my car.” Suleiman is also forced to endure a pro-Palestinian gathering where pompous academics ramble on about the Palestinian cause without bothering to hear from a real Palestinian.
But the most wince-making scene, at least for me, comes when, while in Paris, he pitches a movie idea to a production company. The producer explains that although she is sympathetic to the cause, Suleiman’s script is “not Palestinian enough.” Evidently, this is based on a real incident. For those of us who have pitched movie and TV ideas to clueless and superficial producers, this experience is all too familiar.