Did you know that Krzysztof Kieslowski has a posthumous movie out? It’s called
Heaven, and it was slated
to be the first in a new trilogy, called Heaven, Hell and Purgatory.
It has the allegorical strength that we have come to expect from Kieslowski;
indeed, its simplicity and directness represents something of a return to the
Dekalog days. The director is Tom Tykwer, who doesn’t quite have Kieslowski’s
sense of visual magic and wonderment, but who can craft some astonishing shots
all the same.
Somehow, despite Cate Blanchett in the lead and distribution by Miramax, Heaven
seems to have fallen through the cracks this autumn: I, for one, didn’t even
notice when it came out, and it’s gone nowhere at the US box office. (Just as
All or Nothing, I owe my local rep cinema, the Pioneer
Theater, many thanks for giving me the opportunity to see it.) Maybe the
problem is that it looks like a classic europudding: a French-German co-production
of a Polish script shot in Italian and English by a German director. But if
you’re a Kieslowski fan, you should definitely check it out.
The story begins when Philippa (Blanchett), an English teacher in Turin, leaves
a bomb in the office of a local drug dealer who is responsible for killing both
her husband and her pupils. The assassination attempt goes awry, however, and
four innocents are killed instead. When Philippa learns this, her life loses
all meaning, and only the love of the translator in her interrogation room,
Filippo (Giovanni Ribisi) saves her and redeems her.
Philippa doesn’t even particularly want to be saved: devastated by the effects
of her bomb, she agrees to Filippo’s escape plan only so that she can have a
second attempt to kill the drug lord. Once he’s dead, she says, she will happily
pay for what she has done, but of course by that point she’s starting to reciprocate
Filippo’s love, and runs away with him instead.
Philippa and Filippo share not only their given names but also their birthday,
and for much of the second half of the film they even look almost identical,
with shorn heads, white t-shirts and jeans, angels with dirty faces. When they
finally couple, at sunset, under a tree, we see them in silhouette, and it’s
not all that easy to tell which is which.
This is not a naturalistic film: while Philippa has a comprehensive enough
forensic background to know that she can insist on giving her answers in English,
it never seems to occur to her that as someone responsible for the deaths of
four people, she might do well to ask for a lawyer. And by the end of the film
and a final shot reminiscent of Breaking the Waves, all pretense at
realism has been thrown to the skies.
For his part, Tykwer has gone to great lengths to get his film to look just
right. The stunning shots of the Italian countryside in and around Montepulciano
are matched only by some astonishing SpaceCam vertical photography of Turin
shot straight down from above. The credits even said something about parts of
the movie being filmed on location in Oxfordshire, as though Italy didn’t look
Italian enough for some scenes. In any case, I can’t readily think of another
film which has so many helicopter and crane shots: it’s airborne not only in
spirit. Even when the camera is very low, such as at the beginning, when it
looks up past Philippa at the building she’s about to bomb, or at the very end,
it’s focussed on the heavens.
He’s less successful with the score, which is reliant mainly on excruciatingly
dull solo-piano pieces by Arvo Pärt. And he only scores .500 with the leads:
Blanchett gives her all in a performance of searing beauty and pain, stealing
the film and leaving no oxygen for Ribisi to breathe. If we believe his love
for her it is because of her, not him.
A word about authorship: I haven’t suddenly joined the camp of the screenwriters,
who think that they, and not the directors, should generally get the "a
film by" credit. All the same, occasionally one comes across a film which
is more writer than director. True Romance is one; Heaven
is another. I would guess that if you like this film you’ll say it’s by Kieslowski;
if you don’t like it, you’ll say it’s by Tykwer. I’m one of the former.