‘It Must Be Heaven’ Film Review: Palestinian Comedy Finds Absurdity Around the World

Cannes 2019: The human comedy, says Elia Suleiman’s first film in a decade, recognizes no nationalities and encompasses us all

More than a few festival-goers must have woken up in rough shape after last night’s long trip to the club with Abdellatif Kechiche, and to their credit, the Cannes Film Festival seems to have taken that into account.

Maybe that’s why the festival kicked off its final day of screenings on Friday with so gentle and winning a film as Elia Suleiman’s “It Must Be Heaven.” With his first feature in 10 years, the Palestinian director returns with another exploration of nationality and identity that explores those questions with deadpan humor and poker-faced comic invention.

As in his three previous films, Suleiman takes the lead, playing a version of himself as channeled through the comic personas of Buster Keaton, Jacques Tati and, sure, Mr. Bean. Save for one line of dialogue, Suleiman anchors the film as a quiet observer who takes in the absurdities of the world around him and responds with a cockeyed look or quick double-take that speaks 10 times louder than words.

As a director, Suleiman knows how to compose the frame to get the most out of each gag, and as a performer, he recognizes that his arched eyebrows are powerful tools of comedy and employs them as such. Those are helpful assets for an easy-going film that coolly ambles forward as a series of short sketches and vignettes, while maintaining a fairly detached tone.

But don’t mistake Suleiman’s droll approach as evidence of dispassion. Quite to the contrary, in fact, because he uses that flattening style to make his larger point. “It Must Be Heaven” finds the filmmaker/character leaving his home in Palestine to live in Paris and New York, only to find those big city meccas wrought with the same absurdities that mark his native Nazareth.

As he stands before a sign advertising “the human comedy” in Paris, his thesis cannot be clearer. The human comedy knows no borders, he argues. It recognizes no nationalities and it encompasses us all — so it doesn’t matter where you go, because there you are.

And in some ways, that’s the only way you can live when your own nationality is so hard to quantify. Suleiman is a Palestinian filmmaker, but “It Must Be Heaven” is a French-German-Canadian-Turkish production, because it’s not so easy to make a Palestinian film.

Hell, it wasn’t so easy to make this film, we learn in a series of very funny sequences where Suleiman meets with well-known film business figures like Wild Bunch CEO Vincent Maraval, “Matthias and Maxime” producer Nancy Grant and actor Gael Garcia Bernal – all of whom had other projects in Cannes this year, as fate would have it – to pitch this very project.

Maraval gets the best punchline when he turns down the project (in real life, he is handling sales) because “it’s not Palestinian enough.” Onscreen, Suleiman winces, and the Cannes audience burst into appreciative, knowing laughter. Was the joke on the character, on Maraval, or on everyone gathered together in the room? The answer is all of the above. That’s the human comedy.

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