Masterpiece, like genius or champion, is a too-often used word.
It Must Be Heaven (2019) is a masterpiece.
Writer-director Elia Suleiman has crafted an homage to his state, Palestine, in this anti-military film of beautiful scenery and rich colours. The main character says four words.
To me his message is Palestine should not rush into being recognised if that brings their people closer to the rest of the world. Be careful of what you wish for because you may end up like the others?
The west has an image of Palestine as violence fraught. Palestinians have an image of the west which Suleiman examines. Which is better? Let the viewer decide.
The film is told in three sections. Nazareth, Paris and New York.
It begins with a Christian religious ceremony that goes wrong and ends with young Palestinians dancing joyously with their arms raised in a night club. The old has failed, the new brings hope?
In Nazareth, life is slow. Plants and trees must be watered; a gang of armed youths are not running towards beating up a lone man but past him to escape from authorities; a drunk pees against a wall and then smashes his beer bottle against it in full view of two policeman watching him from close by through stolen binoculars.
An elderly neighbour carries a rifle home from hunting and tells Suleiman a long story about a snake he saved from an eagle. It is a metaphor for the harmless citizen being set upon by an expression of military might in flight; the same neighbour whose bladder makes him pee outside Suleiman’s house in driving rain is walked home by the author beneath his umbrella; a Bedouin woman carries two large bowls through an olive tree forest using a painstakingly slow method.
Most of it is done in silence and the beauty is there to see. However, replace entertainment for art and It Must Be Heaven. Like the painstaking process of the woman, the film is slow and demands serious consideration.
Israelis are seen only once. Suleiman’s car is overtaken by two soldiers swapping each other’s sunglasses and looking at themselves in the rear vision mirror as they travel. It all seems a bit harmless until the camera pans to a blindfolded and bound woman sitting as prisoner in the rear seat. Is this the symbol of justice, blind to Palestinians? Suleiman observes and drives away quickly.
In Paris, he is obsessed with the image of free womanhood. Beautiful clothes, slim, long legs. They all look like catwalk models and probably are. The view from his hotel window is of a large screen in the opposite building showing a fashion show running 24/7. This is his first thought of Paris.
However, this changes swiftly. He tours an empty Paris on Bastille Day morning before disturbed by tanks running in convoy through a side street. Other vehicles follow and France’s military pride is put on display later in the day. The place many, including one imagines, Palestinians, consider the most beautiful city in the world, becomes a riot of colour and noise and defence images.
Suleiman’s Parisian observations show police in action in all three places. In Paris they pursue a man on a man on some roller blade/Segway things. The fugitive carries a bunch of flowers, presumably stolen, beneath an abandoned car; police an old woman carrying shopping on a metro; they measure a patio outside a café to ensure it complies with seating restrictions. Always in numbers.
He mimes the working of an old typewriter when a small bird he has welcomed into his hotel room insists on bobbing onto his laptop keyboard and is gently brushed off.
He visits Tuileries Gardens and watches people selfishly grasping chairs before the elderly or infirm can use them. Contrast this with the walking home of his neighbour in the rain in Nazareth. Yet Suleiman, who stands and observes from a distance, has a chair of his own which he isn’t using. Has he been corrupted?
While in Paris, a production house sympathetic to the Palestinian cause, rejects his movie treatment of the fictitious Heaven Can Wait. The producer, speaking French, the translation of which reads pure American, says “it isn’t Palestinian enough.”
Then to New York where he overplays the lack of gun control. Everyone in the supermarket is armed like a US cop or Rambo. Outside the store, a young family alights from a taxi. The father retrieves a rocket launcher from the boot.
Police in New York are in greater numbers than Paris. They run, Keystone Cops style, after a stripped woman with a Palestinian flag painted on her breasts. From banality to militarism to anarchy as he has travelled from Nazareth to Paris to New York. Here, his movie treatment is not just rejected but not even looked at.
Suleiman pulls a tag from an ad on a lamp post and visits a Tarot card reader. He is told Palestine will happen. Further examination of the cards and is told: “Palestine will happen but not in your lifetime.”
He returns to Nazareth and, drinks with a companion. The man says the rest of the world drinks to forget, Palestinians drink to remember. He finishes seated at a nightclub watching the young having a terrific time.
Comparisons of Suleiman’s style are probably most closely related to Jacques Tati’s La Vacances du Monsieur Hulot (1953) and Mon Oncle (1958). These were hugely successful homages to the work of W.C. Fields and Buster Keaton.
Mel Brooks made Silent Movie (1976) in which only one word was spoken. By French mime Marcel Marceau.
The Artist (2011) won a best picture Oscar, only the second silent picture after Wings (1927) to do so. It isn’t a popular genre.
Suleiman’s character is the silent reference in It Must Be Heaven. He has made a film which belongs in an art gallery because this is not entertainment. It is art.
CLUB REACTION: Six viewers averaged our lowest ever group score of 1.8. Everybody hated it.
See a similar view to Silent Movie (1976): On the May 19, 1981, broadcast of The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson (1962), Alan Alda related his experience of attending the film’s 1976 premiere in Westwood (which had Mel Brooks and Anne Bancroft in the audience). Alda said he probably laughed harder than anyone in the crowd, and once the movie had ended, he approached Brooks and Bancroft to compliment them on a job well done. According to Alda, Bancroft didn’t miss a beat and responded, “Oh, that was you laughing? You see Mel? I told you SOME idiot would find this funny!”