Elia Suleiman: actor, director, “citizen of the world.” It Must Be Heaven follows Suleiman as he journeys from his native Palestine to Paris, and then to New York, using his artistic status as a passport and a platform from which to broadcast empty truisms about the universal nature of human experience. But, you know, with laughs. Comedy is, as ever, a matter of taste, and so while I’m forced to concede that Suleiman’s bromidic drolleries must constitute someone’s idea of a joke, I’m not inclined to grant him the validation of even a stray chuckle: Has any popular concept been more thoroughly bankrupted by our present moment than the bland, totalizing credo of “global citizenship?” Can anyone really feel the warm fuzzies because yet another movie flattens the contingent inequities of time and place in order to tell us, with a smile, ‘we’re all really the same’? It certainly doesn’t help that Suleiman, as messenger and lead actor, is a lifeless gnome-like presence. A generous description might label his style Keatonian, though Keaton didn’t need a foppish scarf and an immovable sunhat to act as sartorial stand-ins for a screen personality.
As director, Suleiman possesses maybe two or three visual ideas, though he strongly prefers one: sometimes things over here look like things over there. Because warmed-over humanism is his chosen mode, his facile symmetries are meant to reinforce — as the press notes say — the “unexpected parallels” that he discovers while travelling the globe. They’re also meant to be funny. That they fail as comedy is perhaps forgivable. That they turn disparate places and people into easily readable mirror images, which provide us the comfort of the familiar only because they reflect back a portrait of ourselves, is more worthy of condemnation. And even if It Must Be Heaven is too dull to be offensive, it is shockingly deluded about the current state of affairs — and that’s no laughing matter at all.
Published as part of Toronto International Film Festival 2019 | Dispatch 2.