Saturday, April 29, 2017

Heaven Before I Die (Brothers in Arms, PM Entertainment Group, 1997)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2017 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Last night Charles and I watched Heaven Before I Die, which had been sitting in my backlog for quite a while (I must have bought it online but I can’t remember from what source or what quirky algorithm guided me to it), which turned out to be a 1997 independent production from Canada, written and directed by Izidore K. Musallam. It’s about a young man named Jacob who’s born in occupied Palestine, in Jerusalem (there’s a grimly funny sequence in which he goes to a call center to pay for a long-distance phone call to his family back home, and he grandly announces to the operator that he wants to place a call to “Jerusalem, The Holy Land,” and is rather officioualy informed, “The only Jerusalem we have listed is in Israel”) with such a severe case of pronation — the condition in which your feet are at an angle and your toes point outward instead of staying parallel with the rest of your body — that he looks and walks like Charlie Chaplin. Needless to say, he’s continually being teased about this, both as a child (he’s played by three actors — Hannin Eisa Abu-Alhumos as a baby, Mohammed Eisa Abu-Alhumos as a boy, and the devastatingly handsome Andy Velasquez as an adult through most of the film) and when he grows up, falls diffidently in love with a local girl named Nora (Ruti Moinster), only to be heartbroken when, before he’s had the chance to have sex or do much of anything physical with her, she decides to emigrate. Several years later Jacob decides to emigrate, too, after he sees a gang of smugglers give a street presentation promoting Canada as “the real land of milk and honey” and a good place for a young Palestinian to go to flee the Israeli occupation and the ultra-limited job prospects at home. There’s a nicely amusing scene in which the Asian-born man who’s supposed to help him says that a “sip” is waiting to take him to Boston, from where he can hitch a ride to Toronto, and it takes quite a while before he realizes the word is “ship.”

Once he makes it to Toronto he falls in with two small-time crooks, likewise undocumented immigrants to Canada, named Sharif (played by Giancarlo Giannini, who in the early 1970’s briefly became an international star through his roles in Lina Wertmuller’s movies The Seduction of Mimi, Swept Away and Seven Beauties) and Stavros (Geoffrey Lower — his character is listed in the credits as “Sterrea,” presumably his last name, but “Stavros” is how he’s addressed throughout the film). They agree to put Jacob up, only his first night at their place he walks into their living room in the middle of the night on his way to the kitchen to get some food — and he sees Sharif, Stavros and their poker buddies (watching this movie I couldn’t help but recall the similar scenes of proletarian men playing poker in Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire — indeed, Williams’ working title for that play was The Poker Night) hunching over a piece of graph paper on which is drawn the floor plan for some building. From the drawing and from their conversation, with its references to an “in-and-out” job, it’s obvious they’re planning something illegal, but it’s not clear exactly what (Charles thought they were plotting to rob a convenience store, I thought they were going after a bank) until later in the film. It seems they’ve devised a gadget they can stick into the card slot of an ATM to hack it and get it to dispense all its cash on hand — which comes out as a series of red-and-white bills that probably don’t look at all like real Canadian money (throughout Hollywood’s classic era the U.S. Treasury Department forbade the use of real American currency in Hollywood films, and in 1949 the producers of the film T-Men made a big deal out of the fact that theirs was the first film to show genuine American money: since the film was about counterfeiters and much of the plot turned around the ability — or lack thereof — of the counterfeiters to make their money look like the real deal, actually showing the real deal was important to the filmmakers, so they cut a deal with the Treasury Department to let them show it) — and though they tell Jacob to wait in the car while they do this, he gets out and his Chaplinesque stumbles attract the attention of the security guard and thereby inadvertently help his crook roommates get away with it.

The next time they try it, though, he gets chased by a cab driver who’s long dreamed of making a citizen’s arrest and he ends up spending the night in jail, only to be bailed out by Selma (Joanna Pacula), a waitress at a club the crooks frequent, whom Sharif wanted as a girlfriend but who only has eyes for Jacob. Selma and Jacob drift into a rather odd relationship, hampered by the fact that back home he pledged fidelity to Nora even though he now has no idea where she is, and he rather guiltily turns down Selma’s advances. One night Selma shows him a video of a film by Charlie Chaplin (The Cure, produced by Mutual Studios in 1917 — though Selma tells him in the dialogue it’s from 1928), and at first Jacob is outraged that so liberal a country as Canada would make a film ridiculing his disability. Selma explains to him that not only is it an old movie, but the person who made it is considered a comic genius. She persuades Jacob to join her as a busker, doing an act called “Jacob and the Pig” in which he dresses in Chaplin’s “Tramp” costume, and they become so sensationally popular that the advertising agency behind Le Savoir perfume hires Jacob to shoot an ad layout for them in Chaplin drag. (The assistant to the agency’s casting director is obviously Gay, and the subtle way he holds Jacob’s hand, hoping that will be the start of a seduction while the terminally naïve Jacob is totally unaware of his intentions, is especially nice.) This makes him at least a minor local star in Toronto and starts making him money, though his success is dimmed when one day, while he’s out performing, his roommates receive a call from his “brother number six” (his parents had 13 kids in all) telling him that their father has just died.

The film ends with a big scene in which he crashes the special Sunday-night gatherings at Selma’s workplace, the Club Paradise — on Sunday nights the club closes to the regular public but is open to an invited crowd, and part of the attraction is that various patrons impersonate famous people, some living and some dead. Jacob is particularly taken by Khalil Gibran (Omar Sharif — Charles joked that his fee probably ate up most of the filmmakers’ budget), who spouts some of the pseudo-prophetic lines from the real Gibran’s writings — and the club bills Leonard Cohen (still very much alive in 1997) as their featured attraction, though what both we and the patrons actually see is an actor (Danny Marks) impersonating Cohen and lip-synching to the real Cohen’s record “Dance Me to the End of Love.” Then there’s a scene in which, in order to mourn his father, Jacob goes to a cemetery and lights on the tombstone of a man named McBride inscribed with some fly-on-my-sweet-angel sentiments, and a relative of the real McBride shows up to leave a flower on the grave and play a piece on the violin — which for some reason inspires Jacob to jettison the Chaplin drag and face his future as himself. Heaven Before I Die (it’s not altogether clear why it’s called that) is clever and a real charmer, though early on I thought it was working too hard to be clever and charming; stories of an innocent naïf emigrating and experiencing culture shock aren’t exactly the freshest plot lines in cinema, but the basic premise is well done here. It’s also one low-budget film whose director is able to make its budget limitations work for him; he shot in 1.33-1 aspect ratio instead of any of the wide-screen formats (and it was jolting to see the “film” credit to “Kodak of Canada” and realize this was in the day when even low-budget films were actually shot on film instead of with digital equipment), and the compact format and naturalistic colors give the movie an intimate quality that works for the story. I don’t know what possessed me to be interested enough in Heaven Before I Die to buy the DVD, but it turned out to be well worth the money and time (the running time is a nice 95 minutes, just long enough to do justice to its story without feeling bloated the way some longer big-budget movies have) Charles and I invested in seeing it.