Friday 18 June 2021

Suleiman's travels: "It Must Be Heaven"

It Must Be Heaven represents Elia Suleiman's first feature in over a decade, meaning that a generation of cinephiles may well have come of age unaware of this filmmaker's droll dispatches from the Palestinian end of the West Bank. Consider this an introduction or reintroduction, then: to the director's comic symmetries (and asymmetries), to the absurd human interactions, to the sight gags that recall Keaton or Tati, and to Suleiman's own mutely deadpan onscreen presence, here newly seasoned with salt-and-pepper stubble, yet eternally an observer, looking on as an ever-crazy world turns. One explanation the new film offers for Suleiman's absence of late is that he's been out and about. It Must Be Heaven starts in the director's homeland, with some pointedly symbolic business about a neighbour who stages early morning raids on the onscreen Elia's lemon trees and offers flimsy excuses whenever he's caught in the act. Having established his native Nazareth as a curious place for anyone to want or have to live in, however, it turns into Suleiman's own Monsieur Hulot's Holiday, transplanting our panama-clad hero (billed as "ES" in the closing credits) to Paris and New York, repositioning the camera just so, and then seeing how he fares. In so doing, Heaven taps into a rich tradition of fish-out-of-water comedy, but it also feels like Suleiman experimenting with his own screen persona. What happens when you detach a figure whose primary characteristic is detachment from his own backyard, and scatter him ever further afield? Would he be any happier then?

As with the title - a phrase Suleiman must have heard countless times upon returning from festival jaunts - that last question begs to be answered with a measured "yes, but...". This equivocation is the rhetorical equivalent of all those careful visual symmetries in his work; it's how the real-life Suleiman prevents himself from lapsing into the extremism of thought, word and deed that has made such a mess of the Middle East. It Must Be Heaven balances discovery with melancholy: it's clearly the work of someone thrilled to have new angles to shoot (Suleiman's hallowed status in France is such that whole neighbourhoods and tourist attractions have been roped off for him), but also filled with a mounting regret that certain imbalances and injustices remain visible wherever one might go. Seeing more of the planet just means you see more of the good and the bad. (One thing Suleiman spots, as the 2010s were drawing to an end: how militarised the world has become beyond the West Bank, as if that fractious, unresolved left/right divide had transcended its immediate geographical boundaries and sundered communities the whole world over.) He retains a touching faith in simple sight gags, as in the sudden, very funny cutaway to ES stood on a Parisian kerb, next to a bottle bank overflowing with empties: a deft expression of the outsider's shock at (and admiration of) how much the French routinely put away each night. (There's also a passing enmity with Grégoire Colin as the Parisian equivalent of a lager lout.) Yet - and this is where those comparisons to Tati and (another French favourite) Jerry Lewis come in - he also knows how to run with and develop a gag, to the point where it yields new notes and nuances. As he's leaving the Middle East, ES's car passes that of two speeding patrol cops comparing wraparound sunglasses. Initially, it seems to be an offhand joke about the vanity of those in positions of authority - but then the camera pans to reveal a young woman, blindfolded in the backseat. Even a fairly obvious observational bit about everyone in America owning a gun has legs, and bite: young kids are seen with assault rifles slung over their shoulders, and a rocket launcher gets pulled, like luggage, from the back of a cab.

As the film proceeds, its strain of self-reflexivity rises ever closer to the surface. Only Suleiman could have made It Must Be Heaven, because It Must Be Heaven is Suleiman reflecting on his own status (privilege, if you prefer) as a Palestinian who gets to travel. His onscreen avatar comes to Paris for an unsuccessful meeting with a producer (played by Suleiman's actual producer, Vincent Maraval) whose sympathy for the Palestinian cause means he has neither time nor money for projects that don't directly address the Palestinian conflict. This is Suleiman's (admittedly secondary) struggle: to try and make non-didactic, non-dramatic films with all this going on. He travels, so as to clear some wiggle room for himself. What if you're a Palestinian who just wants to goof off every once in a while? Or who doesn't want to assume the burden of finding solutions for a conflict you didn't personally initiate? (To triangulate those questions: couldn't laughter be a solution? Might a joke not change the world at some point?) Like its predecessors in this filmography, It Must Be Heaven requires a measure of viewer patience. Suleiman's cinema is a slow cinema, operating on the principle that if you set your camera up on any street corner and wait, eventually something funny, rewarding and/or illuminating will reveal itself. (It's the same principle that leads millions of tourists each year to plonk themselves on wicker chairs outside cafes and bars in exactly those locations ES visits here.) Yet more often than not, the tactic pays off, those extra seconds and minutes affording us time and space to properly consider the places Suleiman films, and why it might be quietly instructive and radical for a Palestinian filmmaker to turn their camera on peaceful, nondescript backstreets. His latest has been delayed a year by the pandemic, yet its slowburn charm has hardly suffered for that, and its underlying desire to get out and see the world in all its baffling, lopsided, humdrum glory ensures it speaks even more precisely and resonantly to June 2021 than many other releases of this moment.

It Must Be Heaven opens from today in selected cinemas, and is available to stream via Curzon Home Cinema and the BFI Player.

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