Like Steven Spielberg’s A.I.: Artificial Intelligence
, German director Tom Tykwer’s new film Heaven
carries with an original idea, and in this case an entire screenplay, from a deceased master of cinema. Krzysztof Kieslowski, known for his Three Colors Trilogy and the 10 part Decalogue
series died in 1996. He wrote Heaven
with his usual collaborator Krzysztof Piesiewicz with
the idea of this film being part one in a three part series to include Purgatory
. Tykwer wisely avoids Spielberg’s route of taking someone else’s original idea and then adapting it for himself (possibly because Piesiewicz is still alive, unlike Stanley Kubrick), and instead leaves Heaven
’s script intact. The film is sparsely dialoged and the simplicity and razor sharp focus of Kiewslowski’s very Christian fable about suffering, love and redemption makes Heaven
highly unusual but powerfully sweet in its simple lyricism.
Tom Tykwer mellows his style down to produce simple, precisely framed compositions that compliment the immense visual presence of Cate Blanchett and Giovanni Ribisi, the film’s two leads. Philippa (Cate Blanchett, who seems to turn everything she touches to gold,) is an English teacher in Italy who tries to bomb the office of a drug dealer who hides behind the guise of company executive. His drug influx in Philippa’s town has not only caused the overdose of her ex-husband, but has also addicted many of her young students. After months of useless pleading to the corrupt Carbinieri she takes drastic action into her own hands. She sees her only option as a violent one, and her harsh revenge necessitates the horrible consequences: her bomb was misplaced and it kills four innocent people instead of her target drug dealer. Philippa is immediately caught and interrogated by the Carbinieri, and the realization that she murdered four innocents strikes her with such agony that she collapses in shock. Philippa’s terrible suffering from the guilt of her crime and the ongoing accusations by the corrupt Italian police spark such a strong and profound level of empathy in Filippo (Giovanni Ribisi), the Carbinieri’s translator, that he deeply falls in love with Philippa.
A plot summery of a fable can sound dangerously contrived, but Heaven treats its subjects with grace and complete acceptance. Filippo deep compassion makes the unusual love and devotion that is flipped on like a switch in him is utterly understandable, especially in the face of Blanchett’s heartbreaking suffering. When he offers to help her escape Phillipa makes clear that her only goal is to kill the drug dealer, and after that she must face the consequences of the innocent killings. It turns out that the consequences she imagined are more religious than lawful, for after Phillipa has avenged her husband she embarks on a mythical expedition to the Italian countryside where she must spiritually redeem herself with the help of Filippo’s love.
As the film progresses away from the geometric, empty architecture of the Italian city, what amounts to an escape from the police is slowly realized to be a simple allegory for these two people to find redemption. The need to redeem their just, but nonetheless sinful actions, creates a quest for spiritual fulfillment that creates powerful bond of love between the two. Tykwer utilizes the absolute simplicity of the script by visually escaping Phillipa and Filippo from the rigid, grey, straight lined compositions of the city to the warm, soft pictures of the countryside to create a nearly unspoken journey for salvation. The similarity of the characters’ names in no coincidence, and once the two reach a peaceful country town they shave their heads to alter their appearance, which only further emphasize the unique life path they share.
The sparseness of the dialog and the cleanness of action in the script leads to a slightly surreal narrative where the details of Phillipa and Filippo’s escape are withheld and their blossoming love is so subtle, so intertwined to the religious themes behind the onscreen action,
that if one blinks they could completely miss how profound the connection is between these two people. Tykwer uses minimalist, uncluttered compositions and a minor, resonating piano score with pieces by composer Arvö Part and Tykwer himself to place maximum importance on the two main characters. Blanchett and Ribisi’s faces fill the screen, and because of the film’s honest simplicity the lead performances are paramount to expressing the religious arc their characters take. The sparse plot points force the viewer to rely on Blanchett’s tremendous inner turmoil turned redemptive search and Ribisi’s directionless compassion turned love to follow Heaven’s narrative. Though there is thematic importance to the town Phillipa is caught in, and the countryside the lovers escape to, the physical items in the frame are diminished in importance next to the quiet, expressive faces of the two leads.
For a fable that is so short and sweet revealing more of Heaven’s plot would do an injustice to its astounding ending. Minimal physical narrative, which is mainly Phillipa’s escape and her trip to the countryside with Filippo, creates a simple, quiet journey from sin to redemption, and all that is in-between. The fable meditates on the mystical link between redemption and love, and it is a shame Heaven
cannot be put into the context of Kieslowski’s planned trilogy. It would not only be fascinating to see purgatory and hell portrayed with a fable-like, barebones simplicity, but would of course open up subtext between the three films’ portrayals of the journey to reach each of Christianity’s afterlives. As it is Heaven
stands strongly on its own as a powerfully quiet Christian allegory. Tykwer handles the material with tender care and lovingly, lightly stylizes the film in its simplicity. But it is Cate Blanchett and Giovanni Ribisi who infuse the film with a deep, restrained energy that makes the simple recognition of their love and the film’s allegorical ending both cathartic and deeply satisfying.