Cannes 2019 review: It Must Be Heaven (Elia Suleiman)

Palestinian director Elia Suleiman leaves his Nazareth home, and Palestine altogether, in hopes of finding a new, better place to work. But wherever he goes, whether it’s Paris or New York, Palestine seems to follow him. Soon he finds himself in an absurd comedy of errors, as no matter where he goes he always observes something that reminds him of his home country.

Suleiman is no stranger to the Cannes festival. Three competition berths (including a Prix du Jury win for Divine Intervention in 2002) following a debut on the Croisette in 2000 in the Quinzaine with Cyber Palestine, and his latest film It Must Be Heaven netted a Special Jury Mention on Sunday. The film, in his usual observational and often absurdist style, has Suleiman exploring the question: where is this place we call ‘home’?

The film opens with a series of sketches in Nazareth, Suleiman’s home town, a lot of them involving an over-eager-to-please neighbor. Suleiman doesn’t find inspiration in the familiarity of his city, so he sets off for greener artistic pastures. First stop on his trip is Paris, and it soon dawns on him that this city isn’t essentially different from the place he left behind. Where security checkpoints used to be reserved for his neck of the woods, they are now everywhere to be found. Language remains a source of comedy and wonderment for Suleiman, but even in another country he does not shy away from making political statements about the situation in Palestine. In one sketch a producer (played by Wild Bunch honcho Vincent Maraval) expresses his wish to work with Suleiman, but says his ideas are ‘not Palestinian enough’, mocking the West’s virtue signaling when it comes to the Palestinian issue.

After Paris, Suleiman’s next destination is New York, where the parallels become even more obvious. Taking aim at the Americans’ love for guns, he sees people carrying weapons everywhere, from waiters to housewives to toddlers. What’s the difference from home? Can he escape ‘home’? In the end the director decides to return to ‘his’ Nazareth, only to find that perhaps nothing has changed. But in a final scene in a club (decidedly more demure than those that Abdellatif Kechiche seems to frequent) he observes an exuberant group of youths, which ends the film on a hopeful note.

It Must Be Heaven is certainly entertaining, but the problem is that we have seen Suleiman do this before, better and sharper, specifically in Divine Intervention. Even though the thematics change slightly, that can only get you so far. Jokes are often too on-the-nose or too easy, and because of this the parallels Suleiman tries to draw between Palestine and the rest of the world get lost in the mix. What is left is a film too slight for its own good, and perhaps that is why the jury led by Alejandro González Iñárritu gave it ‘only’ a special mention.