Film Review

Heaven

Reviewed by Antonio D. Sison
Katholieke Universiteit Nijmegen

(Credits)


Photo by Sergio Strizzi - ©2002 Miramax - All Rights Reserved

Vol. 7, No. 1 April 2003

Heaven

[1] "My father said that at the right moment you have to do what nobody expects." The line spoken by the male lead character in Heaven provides a window to the film. To viewers weaned on the tried-and-tested Hollywood novelistic plot and its mandatory three-act clarity and closure, Heaven might be judged as a pretentious film with an implausible story and a soup-thin plot. But for those who know where to look, that is, those who can appreciate a film that tells its story in a truly filmic fashion, Heaven is an original, hauntingly beautiful film that dares to do "what nobody expects." 

[2] Heaven brings us to the Italian city of Turin where Phillipa (Cate Blanchett), an English teacher, plants a time bomb in the trashbin of the office of a drug baron whose underground activities cost the life of her husband, and ruined the lives of her pupils. But the cleaning lady inadvertently removes the bomb with the trash and it detonates in the elevator. Four innocent lives, including those of two young children, are lost; the drug lord, unscathed. Believing her mission completed and ready to face the law, Phillipa almost too easily informs the police about her crime and she finds herself under interrogation. When she is told that the bomb had killed innocent people instead of the drug lord, Philippa implodes, as though stabbed in the heart by an invisible knife. The young carabinieri(Giovanni Ribisi) who had acted as Philippa's interpreter, comes to her aid when she faints and is overcome by a great love for her. His name is Fillipo. Thus begins the journey of Phillipa and Fillipo, a quasi-mystical quest for transcendence threatened at every turn by a moral time bomb.

[3] Based on a script by the late Polish director Krysztof Kieslowski and his writing partner Krysztof Piesiewicz, Heaven was meant to be part of a new trilogy (along with Purgatory, and Hell) that got aborted by Kieslowski's untimely demise. The only script that reached near-completion, Heaven found its way into the hands of German director Tom Tykwer (Run Lola Run, 1998) who, in a deft exercise of restraint and subtlety, succeeds in paying homage to the master of brinkmanship.

[4] For one, Phillipa and Fillipo are embodied moral paradoxes that mirror the characters in Kieslowski's The Decalogue (1988). Philippa is a woman with a singleminded crusade against evil but she herself commits a great evil. Fillipo is a law enforcer, a carabinieri, but plots Phillipa's break from prison and agrees to be an accomplice to murder. There is also the Kieslowski predilection for telling the story through the language of visuals; key points are to be found in the subtle poetics of the film's mise-en-scene. Character transformation, for instance, can be seen in the gradual change of appearance Phillipa and Fillipo undergo. They pass through several stages of undressing, a gradual peeling away of layers of inauthenticity, until they are shown shaven, stark naked and completely vulnerable. Standing by a huge tree and silhoutted against a stunning sunset, Phillipa and Fillipo had been transformed into emblematic primordial characters, present-day incarnations of Adam and Eve in an Eden revisited. And then there is the typical Kieslowski preoccupation with the theme of love's tranformative power best remembered in the sixth Decalogue installment, A Short Film About Love, where the christic love of a young lad named Tomek transforms Magda, an older, promiscuous woman. In Heaven, Fillipo plays Tomek to Phillipa's Magda when his unconditional love saves the latter in a profound way and ushers-in a return to innocence.

[5] The ending reinforces the impulse to interpret Heaven as a postmodern re-appropriation of the biblical Creation-Fall account told in reverse. Pursued by the police, Phillipa and Fillipo escape in a chopper which flies vertically and disappears as a dot in the sky. Here, spatiotemporal boundaries blur and the open-endedness encourages an eschatological hermeneutic akin to the impact of the celestial denouement of Kidlat Tahimik's Perfumed Nightmare or Lars von Trier's Breaking the Waves.

[6] The conceptual allusion to heaven, however, had already come earlier, at a delicate turn when Fillipo does the unexpected. Phillipa confesses to him inside an empty church, "Four people died because of me and I can't live with that..." The young man replies, "I love you." This might be construed as an arbitrary romantic contrivance. Then again, you might see what this exquisitely profound film of rare beauty had been trying to propose - to be the recipient of pure, unmerited love is a glimpse of Heaven.

If you know where to look.
 


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