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MRQE Top Critic

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Having avidly followed writer-director Krzysztof Kieslowski and director Tom Tykwer during the 1990s, I found Heaven to be a rare treat. Heaven looks great on DVD, but the extra features don’t answer the right questions.

Germany Annexes Poland

Blanchett and Ribisi flee backwards through time
Blanchett and Ribisi flee backwards through time

The great Polish filmmaker Krzysztof Kieslowski died not long after completing his “Three Colors” trilogy in 1996. Kieslowski had already made a series of films grouped by theme. The Decalogue is a body of ten one-hour-long films made for Polish TV, each one an interpretation of one of the Ten Commandments.

Kieslowski had written another three films to follow Three Colors. They were to comprise another trilogy related by theme: Heaven, Hell, and Purgatory. There was some debate as to whether Kieslowski’s last trilogy would be produced posthumously, and if so, who should be allowed to direct them.

Enter Tom Tykwer, a German filmmaker best known for Run Lola Run, which stands out among Tykwer’s films as the showiest, most crowd-pleasing one. But it’s not until you see his other films that you understand what makes him a good heir to Kieslowski. In Tykwer’s movies, fate has real power. His music is relentless and fatalistic, driving to some divinely-determined conclusion, yet unobtrusive and unshowy.

Who better to direct Kieslowski than a fellow filmmaker able to turn abstract concepts into palpable emotion? And since Tykwer says he won’t direct Hell or Purgatory, Heaven is a once-in-a lifetime pairing of two talented and moving filmmakers.

Heaven On Earth

Set in Italy, Heaven tells the story of Philippa (Cate Blanchett), a schoolteacher who plants a bomb in an office building, intending to kill a drug kingpin. For a year, she has tried to get the police to respond to her complaints about the drug dealer, but the caribinieri continually ignore her.

Unfortunately, the bomb misses its intended target and kills four innocent people. Philippa is arrested for murder, but she finally has the attention of the police, and she can tell them her complaint.

One of the caribinieri, Filippo the translator (Giovani Ribisi), takes pity on Philippa and arranges for her escape. She agrees to leave, but ultimately she wants to pay for what she’s done.

Together they run away from the police station, backward through time. They travel from city to country. From the shelter of a barn to the shelter of a tree. Under this tree of life, they become Adam and Eve and ascend to Heaven.

Picture and Sound

Visually, Heaven is a light film. It lacks darkness, weight, and richness. Sets are sparse and simple. Once the action moves to the countryside, the film seems bright, almost overexposed. The characters wear white t-shirts and shave their heads, adding to the lightness of the look. On DVD, if anything, the look is richer and more vivid than it was on film. The movie is presented in its original widescreen (1.85:1) aspect ratio.

Tykwer comments that he’s always been very careful in designing the sound for his films, and that Heaven was the most challenging sound design yet. He points out that there are two moments when the sound dies down to nothing to heighten the emotion of a scene. The sound quality is not as noticeably good as on a showier movie, say Run Lola Run, but it suits the movie just fine. It is encoded in Dolby Digital 5.1 surround sound.

DVD Extras

There are four extra features on this Miramax DVD. The least of these is “The Story of Heaven,” which features interviews from producers Syndney Pollack and Anthony Minghella, who (surprise surprise), think it’s a great movie. They seem to be telling us how to approach the movie, how to appreciate it, as though they expect audiences won’t get it.

Next up the chain are the deleted scenes with audio commentary by Tykwer. In all cases, Tykwer made the right decision to delete the scenes. The last deleted scene is a blooper, but it’s not particularly funny or interesting.

Along the same lines, the DVD includes about five minutes of footage shot by the “Space Cam ” — a helicopter-mounted steadicam that takes a God’s-eye view of the land below (in this case, Turin). The scenery is absolutely gorgeous and the fluidity of the camera makes it even more so. Tykwer hated to not be able to use the footage, and he was glad the DVD gave him an excuse to show it to the public.

Finally, there is an audio commentary track by Tykwer that runs the duration of the film. And while Heaven seems like the perfect film for a commentary track, Tykwer takes too high-level a view. He speaks at length, but sometimes he talks about the obvious instead of explaining a more interesting detail.

A better commentary might have included some comments from cinematographer Frank Griebe or production designer Uli Hanisch, because much of what I wanted to know about the movie had to do with a specific shot, or a specific look. It would have also been wonderful to hear from Kieslowski’s collaborator Krzysztof Piesiewicz on how well Tykwer adapted their screenplay. There are worse commentators than Tom Tykwer, but the commentary track alone won’t justify the price of the DVD.

What does justify the cost of the disc is the movie itself, which is very good, and perhaps the Space Cam outtakes, which are gorgeous.