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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. But to the casual observer, Heaven may be boring and pretentious.

Krzysztof Clear

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. Each of the three films was an interpretation of one of the colors in the French flag. Blue, White, and Red stand for liberty, equality, and fraternity, respectively.

Kieslowski had already made a series of films grouped by theme. The Decalogue is a body of ten 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.

A Brief History of Tom

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.

Wintersleepers is Tykwer’s earliest widely-available feature. In it, there is a power of fate. Tykwer’s music is relentless, fatalistic, driving to some divinely-determined conclusion, yet unobtrusive and unshowy. His most recent film is The Princess and the Warrior, which also has a sense of fate, of destiny, of some power larger than life.

Who better to direct Kieslowski than a fellow filmmaker able to turn abstract concepts into palpable emotion?

Carnal Forgetfulness

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, hoping to extend the time the cops must consider her complaint about the drug dealer. 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.

Like 2001, Heaven has a poetic, allegorical ending. After a meandering last act, such an ending may leave the literal-minded filmgoer confused and frustrated, which is why I don’t recommend Heaven more highly. For some, Heaven is a place where nothing ever happens.

Creating Heaven on Earth

The acting is terrific, particularly from Blanchett, who is in a class by herself. She’s an actress for whom good looks are not a liability. Several recent movies distracted me from a female character by casting a blonde supermodel as a regular person. Blanchett is beautiful and believably human in whatever role she takes.

Ribisi’s role is less demanding, and he fills it adequately. Filippo gets swept up in the strength and beauty of Philippa and spends most of his time following her around.

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.

As in Tykwer’s other films, music plays an important part in helping set the mood. Tykwer himself writes the simple, sparse piano music that enhances the feeling of lightness in Heaven.

Heaven, Hell, and Purgatory

The thing about Kieslowski’s theme films is that they are broad interpretations, not literal morality plays. For example, Blue, the film that represents “liberty,” is about a woman whose husband dies in a car crash. Blue is not about the political freedom envisioned by Napoleon’s contemporaries, but about a freeing of the spirit, about losing a protector and being sent into the world on one’s own.

Heaven, then, is not literally about how to get into Heaven. To be honest, I’m not sure exactly how Kieslowski (and co-screenwriter Krzysztof Piesiweicz) saw the story of Philippa and Filippo fitting into the theme. Perhaps my “backwards toward Adam and Eve” theory is correct. I do know that I look forward to seeing it again with friends, and to seeing the completed trilogy, if it gets produced.

Since Tykwer says he won’t direct Hell or Purgatory, Heaven is a once-in-a lifetime pairing of two talented and moving filmmakers. For audiences not bored by allegory, Heaven is worth the wait.