The radical film review
directed by Pablo Larraín
It’s an arresting opening image – a traffic light crackles and burns, suspended above an empty Valparaíso street. There’s faint skylight and we hear a ship’s horn. An edgy, elegiac music track picks up as the camera pulls back to a woman, in a visor and maybe breathing apparatus – a firefighter? She turns, and outlined against the port and cranes, we see she’s carrying a flame thrower.
It’s Ema. She has punkish, slicked-back peroxide hair, a fixed but uncertain, sometimes hurt, look, and she’s a dancer in her partner Gaston’s troupe. She also teaches movement and dance in the primary school her adopted son had attended, until they’d given him up and another couple had taken on fostering him. A difficult boy, he’d started a fire that had burnt Ema’s sister’s face and put the pet cat in the kitchen freezer. Gaston blankly blames Ema and she coolly taunts and blames him. She’s younger – has she learnt from him, the master choreographer, to not show emotion?
After making Jackie, about the wife of JFK, Larraín has returned to Chile. Whereas Jackie’s role as First Lady consumes her, Ema silently rages against form and formality. She seduces a firefighter, and the unaffordable woman solicitor she engages to get her ‘son’ back.
Larraín has moved on from his studies of fascist sociopaths to a breathtaking feature about love and its damaging absence. It’s visually striking, with a brilliant soundtrack, stunning dancing – and it sticks in the mind.
It Must Be Heaven
co-written and directed by Elia Suleiman
Suleiman, the on-screen observer at the centre of his typically droll feature, says only three words. When a taxi-driver asks where he’s from, he replies: ‘Nazareth’ then adds, ‘I’m Palestinian.’ Wide-eyed, gently, and otherwise silently, he shows us what this means for him.
We see him at home, packing away a wheelchair and a walking frame. We understand that someone he loved once, someone in the family, has died. From his balcony he watches a bare-faced neighbour steal lemons from Suleiman’s tree. A Jewish neighbour?
Driving, he sees two Israeli cops in the front of their car swap sunglasses and check out their appearance in the car mirror. Captive in the back, is a young bound and blindfolded woman. A Palestinian?
In his earlier films, most notably 2002’s Divine Intervention, Suleiman focused on the occupation of Palestine. Here, slower, grey-bearded, he moves on to Paris and New York in the hope of making a film called ‘It Must Be Heaven’. It’s a world out of sync. The French movie producer tells him his film is insufficiently Palestinian. In New York he gets 30 seconds with a producer who tells him the idea of a Palestinian comedy is very funny. In an American supermarket, shoppers all carry heavy weapons. In Paris, on Bastille Day, massive grinding tanks pass at the end of the street and fighter planes roar in formation overhead. We see where power lies.
It’s a quiet, glancing comedy, an appeal in a self-centred world for a kinder one, without borders.
This article is from
the April 2020 issue
of New Internationalist.
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