Friday, October 25, 2019

It Must Be Heaven

Director Elia Suleiman

IT MUST BE HEAVEN                    B                    
Palestine  France  Qatar  Germany  Canada  Turkey  (97 mi)  2019 d:  Elia Suleiman

“There will be a Palestine.  Absolutely.” Then taking a second look at the cards, “Wait; hold on ...”
―Elia Suleiman receiving a tarot reading

A celebration of all things Palestinian, as viewed through the Keatonesque deadpan humor of Elia Suleiman, who places himself front and center as an innocent bystander, always wearing his signature scarf and hat, writing a series of sight gags that take him from his comic interactions with neighbors to Paris and New York, always feeling out of place, not exactly welcomed wherever he goes, viewed as the odd man out, but the power of observation comprise the film’s central premise.  Receiving a Special Mention award at Cannes, Suleiman provides the eyes and ears of the film, where his curiosity knows no bounds, remaining wordless throughout except when a cab driver asks where he’s from, responding “Nazareth.”  “Is that really a country?” the cab driver asks.  “I am Palestinian,” he finally reveals, which generates a howl of approval from the cab driver, immediately calling a friend claiming he’s got a Palestinian in his cab, just like Jesus of Nazareth.  Not nearly as developed as his previous efforts, with DIVINE INTERVENTION (2002) being the stand-out, Suleiman works in ironic absurdity, stringing together variations upon a theme, not really telling a story, instead offering commentary on how he sees the world around him, using long takes and a static camera.  The most recurring sequence involves Suleiman staring over his balcony, never knowing what to expect, initially catching his neighbor stealing lemons from his enormous lemon tree, while other times he’s either pruning or watering them, making sure that includes a new young tree that he’s recently planted, where these scenes mirror other sequences where he can be seen driving his car through dusty roadways before he can be found in an enormous orchard, where through the trees he can see a mysterious woman carrying empty water crates on her head, like an illusory mirage, never approaching her, always viewing her from a distance.  In another he listens to an elderly neighbor tell humorous stories, later discovering that same neighbor out in the rain, as if lost, unable to recall where he really lives, perhaps suffering from signs of dementia, with Suleiman sharing his umbrella as he kindly walks him back to his own home. 

His first film in ten yearas, which is basically a series of vignettes strung together, some scenes offer a different kind of commentary, with Suleiman finding himself in a Middle East restaurant that suddenly turns into a Wild West stand-off, with two thug-like brothers who look more like bodyguards, each sipping Johnny Walker straight, quickly confronting the owner, wondering what he’s feeding their sister who sits quietly munching away between them, with the owner acknowledging he cooks with wine.  Is he trying to get their sister drunk?  The owner admits the drunken party would have to be the chicken, who was thoroughly doused in preparation, but the alcohol cooks out in the cooking process, later apologizing, admitting he should have told them the ingredients ahead of time, bringing the brothers a complimentary bottle of Johnny Walker.  This kind of old-world paternalism, with brothers in the role of enforcers, mixes with the age-old practice of barter and exchange, suggesting all things can be worked out by offering the right incentives.  Adding to the comic absurdity, two cops are harassing a tourist, who is apparently minding his own business, yet the cops won’t leave him alone, even as another man is seen urinating in public, then smashing a beer bottle against a wall, but it’s the tourist who’s the public nuisance.  In another, an angry mob armed with sticks is racing up the street towards Suleiman, apparently ready to bust him up, but they run right past him, taking it out on some otherwise nameless target, giving viewers some idea what it’s like living in an area where the threat of violence is always a distinct possibility.  Similarly, a car races by Suleiman on the highway, with two uniformed soldiers sitting side-by-side in the front seat, with both exchanging sunglasses, retaining the exact same look, but as the camera pulls back, a blindfolded passenger can be seen in the back seat, which isn’t exactly funny, but it’s a disturbing image that’s likely quite common in this part of the world. 

As if seeking a better place to call home, Suleiman travels to Paris, seen sitting at an outdoor café, as pedestrians walk in slow-motion, where women are transformed into chic fashion models, each one strutting down the street, as if this is the city of dreams.  Yet just as strangely, on a mysteriously empty street, Suleiman watches as a line of tanks passes by, an ominous omen in an otherwise peaceful setting, which is mirrored by scenes of cops in formation, doing dazzling dance moves in unison on roller skates, scooters, Segways, or motorcycles, where they literally do tricks before our eyes in a dazzling display of unified choreography.  Perhaps the best expression of France, however, are emergency vehicles arriving to aid the homeless on the street, delivering gourmet meals in stylish exaggeration, treating him like a regular customer, where he has a variety of options to choose from, including choice deserts.  Things are a bit different when he travels to New York City, walking into a supermarket where each of the customers is armed with automatic weapons, bazookas, and assault rifles slung over their shoulders, even as they’re toting babies around, which continues when he gets outside, as everyone is armed to the teeth. Nothing says America, apparently, to the outside world, like an assault weapon.  But it’s also here that Suleiman runs into his friend, actor Gael García Bernal, who is in town to promote a new film idea, sitting in an enormous open-spaced ground floor room with wall-to-wall windows, waiting to meet with a producer as Suleiman tags along.  The high powered producer turns out to be Nancy Grant, Xavier Dolan’s producer, with García introducing Suleiman, claiming he has his own film, a comedy about peace in the Middle East, to which she replies, “That sounds funny already,” ignoring him completely while warmly embracing García, leading him away for a power lunch to discuss his project, while the receptionist asks the suddenly alone Suleiman if he’ll be needing a cab.  An odd  sequence in Central Park finds a collection of police cars arriving to chase a woman dressed in a Palestinian flag painted onto her body while wearing angel’s wings, obviously viewed as an international threat, becoming a comic scene of misdirection, with bungling cops misfiring, misjudging, and just too incompetent to really give her much of a chase, though once they close in on her she simply disappears into thin air, as if she never existed in the first place, leaving only her wings behind, like the remains of what’s left of the dream.  Ending in a celebratory mode in a Palestinean nightclub with youthful dancers enjoying themselves, as if thrilled to be alive, this is a lighthearted and easily digestible comedy about darker subjects and situations, where the satiric tone is mischievous and whimsical, but always a delight.  

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