REVIEW

Elia Suleiman set out to make a Palestinian observational comedy, and he has more than succeeded

Elia Suleiman in It Must Be Heaven. Picture: Supplied
Elia Suleiman in It Must Be Heaven. Picture: Supplied

It Must Be Heaven (M)

4 stars

For obscure reasons, It Must Be Heaven begins during an Easter church service that doesn't go according to script and the bishop leading the congregation has to kick down a door.

Perhaps kicking down a door is a good way to begin a film that few believed could work. The writer-director of It Must Be Heaven, Elia Suleiman, must be gratified that it screened in competition at Cannes last year and was Palestine's official entrant at the Academy Awards.

When most of what we hear from the Middle East is conflict and strife, a Palestinian comedy may sound to many of us like a contradiction in terms. Suleiman, an award-winning Palestinian filmmaker (Divine Intervention, The Time That Remains) from Israel, shows how hard it is to pitch an idea that runs contrary to expectations.

If, as his friend Gael Garcia Bernal suggests in a cameo as himself, Suleiman's next film is about peace in the Middle East, that could be a tough sell too.

After the odd start, the protagonist ES - the filmmaker himself - is at home in his flat in Nazareth enjoying a quiet coffee on the balcony. What do you know, there's a neighbour helping himself to lemons from his garden? ES doesn't react or even offer a mild protest, he just observes, owl-like behind his spectacles and beneath his panama hat.

Watching the world go by, ES is a silent witness. To customers in a restaurant who behave like gangsters when they don't like the food. To the gang armed with baseball bats that roams the streets.

To two soldiers swapping shades in a speeding car, in which a young Palestinian woman with a halo of curly hair sits, blindfolded in the back seat. Sometimes the absurd is tinged with menace.

So much of the film would seem discontinuous were it not viewed through the prism of ES, whose function is to hold it all together. For much, though not all of the time, he is a single organising consciousness conveying to the rest of us a world gone mad.

Until we eventually learn what it is that he has planned.

This is silent comedy that draws on the tradition of comic greats Buster Keaton and Jacques Tati. The images, beautifully composed by cinematographer Sofian El Fani, and their juxtapositions convey the humour. Dialogue is minimal, with ES saying barely a word. If this sounds lite or inconsequential, it isn't. It Must Be Heaven carries a powerful political message.

With images of the tensions that characterise life in Israel firmly established in our visual memory, ES leaves for Paris, where, after a brief love affair with the beauty on parade on the boulevards, he finds things are not so dissimilar. There are tanks filing through the city and fighter jets in formation overhead, and the police are jumpy. He has arrived for Bastille Day and the city is in lockdown.

Once that's over and life supposedly more tranquil, squads of Segway riding policemen patrolling the streets and checking restaurant patio dimension compliance seem like they are pegging out a crime scene. The citizens of Paris themselves, instead of relaxing at the park, go to all sorts of lengths to keep a few seats in the sunshine to themselves.

ES wanders in and out of these scenes like an innocent, then we become aware of his purpose in being there. It Must Be Heaven could be the filmmaker's own story about trying to get his film made. In a little joke for those in the know, a producer who rejects his project is played by Richard Maraval, co-founder of Wild Bunch, the international film sales company. Its name is on the credits.

The journey to pitch a project doesn't end there. In another deft segue for moving on, involving a sparrow and an open window, ES flies off again. Next destination, New York. There it is even less possible to ignore the militarisation of the forces of law and order. What's more, the citizenry are toting their own high-powered weapons. It would be funny, were it not also serious.

As a Palestinian who makes funny films, Elia Suleiman has his job cut out, but this gentle, observational comedy about our fractious world is on message, and at the same time a pleasure to watch.

This story Bold comedy for a fractured world first appeared on The Canberra Times.