It Must Be Heaven review

There’s something to be said about the blissfulness of ignorance. Festivals are prime places to be able to go into a film cold, often not even knowing the title, let alone the subject and synopsis. Give me a movie and I’ll apprehend, no matter what, and hopefully find something to fall for. This rarefied way of seeing Elia Suleiman’s It Must Be Heaven proved heavenly, and there’s perhaps no better way of seeing this charming, sweet and intelligent film.

I’m aware that notion is defeated by this very review, but for many, there may be more familiarity with Suleiman and his work. Subsequently I learned of his usual shtick – the director often plays a Harold Lloyd-like character who silently drifts through his films, commenting wordlessly on events that evoke his Palestinian heritage and the travails of his people.

Blissfully unaware of this conceit, I saw the events for the first third of It Must Be Heaven as evocative, deeply metaphorical vignettes about conflict and concessions. We see the (mostly silent) character bemusedly gazing out as his neighbor comes to take a few lemons from trees on his side of a fence. The responsibilities increase – soon the tree is being pruned in order for the fruits to get bigger, and then the plant is watered, all while suggesting that this is being done for mutual benefit.

Other scenes see increasingly surreal police presence, with choreographed dance-like processions on horseback, on gyro scooters, rollerblades, and even tanks. The central character (named “ES”) travels to Paris where he sits and watches women of all nationalities and hues walk by, wordlessly enjoying the myriad of cultures on display and their shared beauty. It’s only when he takes a meeting in Paris and they talk about making a film about the Palestinian political situation did all the metaphors fall into place, a wonderfully pure experience that proves the very point of the film’s globetrotting – that the movie is far more universal than provincial, speaking to the surrealism of conflict regardless of region while still very much articulating a strong, inclusive political point of view.

ES travels to New York (well, Montreal playing New York) where he meets with Gael Garcia Bernal who is helping him to tackle a film on “peace in the Middle East,” while a producer blithely points out how challenging this will be. There are minefields on many sides of this issue, and what makes the film remarkably effective is how it uses droll comedic moments to silently make larger ideological points (Chaplin, of course, was the master of this).

The inclusion of Nina Simone and especially Leonard Cohen further emphasizes the sense of longing for sanity in an insane world. Scenes where shoppers are festooned with weaponry are macabre and silly, yet completely in keeping with life in that part of the world.

Of course, the larger questions are left unanswered – why would people be armed to the teeth while shopping for food? Recent slaughters in grocery stores in the very country where the film is playing provide stark answers. Yet the point isn’t to make some small contribution to the dialogue, but to actually bring people together to see the shifting perspectives, to recognize the surrealism behind the shared horrors. Naturally the metaphors lean heavily on the militarized law enforcement and encroaching neighbors, but so too is the maudlin nature of ES’s own community, evidenced by the ridiculousness of a panel of diasporic individuals so large that a single clap is warranted when introducing the voices.

The film is dedicated to Palestine, and with its warm and generous heart, it’s hard not to be swayed by Suleiman and his longing for a quiet, contemplative sanity while chaos reigns around his character. This is an inclusive vision, and all the more powerful for it. It’s a hopeful vision, but one not free from cynicism. It’s a unique and lovely film for any audience, a comical film that’s far from superficial, dealing with hugely complex human and political issues in a non-didactic way.

It Must Be Heaven shows how comedy, even with so light a touch, can be the most effective way at examining the human condition. With a wider, more transnational scope, Suleiman’s vision is both more general and specific, a paradox perfectly in keeping with the surrealism on display. It’s a sweet film about a bitter situation, and a sign that through art the loudest voices can often be the ones that say a lot while speaking nary a word.

/Film Rating: 7.5 out of 10

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About the Author

Jason Gorber is a film journalist and member of the Toronto Film Critics Association. He is the Managing Editor of ThatShelf.com, Features Editor at DTK Magazine and a critic for HighDefDigest.