BEIRUT: A filmmaker is escorted to the office of a French producer. From behind his desk, the producer flips through the filmmaker’s script, reciting how his production company likes to be supportive of Palestinian projects.
Having read the script, he says, they noticed that what transpires in the plot might happen anywhere in the world and that, though they’d been very excited about this project, they must withdraw their offer to produce it. It’s simply not Palestinian enough.
He looks up at the expressionless director, who’s been staring at him throughout his recitation, and switches to English.
“Deed you undayrstand anysing I ’ave said?”
The receptionist shows the filmmaker the door.
In “It Must Be Heaven,” the fourth feature of Elia Suleiman, a filmmaker named Elia Suleiman is seen pottering around Nazareth, his home town, a time devoted to drinking various fluids while observing the divine comedy of life in Palestine.
Later he flies to Paris where, in addition to some work, he follows much the same routine as in Nazareth, albeit altered by the city’s distinctive character. Later he finds himself in New York, which further reshapes the course of his daily routine.
In the end he returns to Nazareth.
When “Heaven” premiered at Cannes in 2019, it had been a decade since Suleiman had released a feature film. Appearing between 1996 and 2009, the first three features have come to be discussed as a trilogy. There is enough formal and thematic consistency among the three works to warrant the term. All offer a series of freestanding tableaux, dry comic illustrations of the absurdity of the Palestinian condition. The occupation’s brutality tends to linger just off-frame, somber ballast for the farce.
All the films revolve around ES, the writer-director’s onscreen persona, the witness whose gaze the camera follows, whose response tends to be silent and expressionless. Gallic-inflected readings of ‘the trilogy’ have compared ES to Jacques Tati’s pipe-smoking film persona. Others see him as a low-energy Buster Keaton.
The earlier works aren’t replicas of one another, of course, and some who follow Suleiman’s work (including those who like to be supportive of things Palestinian) wondered whether “Heaven” would abide by the formal and narrative discipline of ‘the trilogy.’
As ES’s encounter with the French producer suggests, it does, for the most part. The locations are more diverse – the film devotes approximately as much screen time to Paris and to New York as it does to Nazareth – but there’s plenty of thematic continuity.
Scorn for men in uniform remains, for instance, though the reasons for the derision may vary. Paris police are officious bureaucrats gliding through the streets on hoverboards and inline skates. New York cops are as incompetent as their Keystone forebears. Nazareth’s Palestinian law enforcement officers seem keen to keep track of petty crime, but ill-suited to preventing or punishing it.
The greatest contempt is saved for Israeli cops. ES sees a squad car speeding down a rural highway, while pair of uniformed gunmen try on each other’s sunglasses and check their looks in the rear-view mirror. In the back seat, meanwhile, a detained young woman is bound and blindfolded.
Much of ES’s witnessing is still framed as shot-reverse shot comedy. As he sips a glass of araq in an otherwise abandoned Nazareth restaurant, a pair of whiskey-swilling brothers glower back at him, as if guarding their sister, who’s struggling with the white wine sauce seasoning her supper. Across the street from a Paris café, a pair of immigrant street sweepers use a broom as a golf club to launch abandoned beer cans into a storm sewer.
Bearing witness to France and America does broaden ES’s repertoire. In an homage to French cinema, and its cafes, one sequence depicts a Paris populated mostly by beautiful women. In a wink at Americans’ liberty fetish, heavily armed New Yorkers go about their grocery shopping like normal people – one driver helpfully retrieving his fare’s grenade-launcher from the trunk of his cab.
Notably, ES’s responses to what he sees in “Heaven” aren’t quite as taciturn as before. Sometimes he even flirts with a smile, as during a sequences with an inquisitive bird that flies in his hotel window and sets about disrupting his writing.
The gags abide, but not all of them will compel belly laughs from the entire audience.
Outrageously, “Heaven” even prompts ES to speak – provoked by a “Kasser Arafat”-loving New York cabbie who asks where he’s from.
Like its predecessors, “Heaven” is a handsome looking film. Cinematographer Sofian El Fani demonstrates himself to be as adept in finding dialects of lyricism in the man-made environments of Paris and Montreal (pantomiming New York City) as in the landscapes of Palestine.
Fani’s handiwork is shown to good advantage in one of the film’s new motifs. Taking advantage of a carte blanche given him by a cinema-loving French functionary, “Heaven” stages a series of ES-inflected landscape studies.
These tableaux usually find him standing with his hands behind his back, a pose less evocative of Tati or Keaton than of Handala. Caricaturist Naji al-Ali conceived of his shoeless, perpetual child of Palestine to witness the disasters of displacement and occupation he depicted in his cartoons.
ES’s solitary form is juxtaposed with monumental architecture like Paris’ Louvre and the Tuileries Garden pool – encounters comically deflated when he encounters an impressively overflowing roadside bottle-recycling bin.
Before travelling, he drives to the country to gaze upon a gigantic cactus grove – such cacti being recognized as mute testimonials to the razed Palestinian villages they now conceal. He returns to the site later in the film, reiterating the monumentality of Palestine’s absented villages.
During both these visits, ES encounters a young woman in peasant costume. First he glimpses her conveying a pair of large pots on her head, walking some distance with one pot before putting it down and returning to retrieve the other pot she’d set down earlier.
The second time, she’s walking back the way she came, one empty pot one her head, the other in hand.
Happily, it’s not Suleiman’s habit to over-explain things.
“It Must Be Heaven” will be projected Wednesday June 9 at Beirut’s Masrah al-Madina at 8 p.m. and again on June 12 at 7:30 p.m. at Sidon's Ishbilia Theatre and ArtHub, as part of Metropolis Cinema’s “To Palestine With Love” screening cycle.