Heaven
review by Dan Lybarger, 18 October 2002

In his best movies, the late Polish director Krzysztof Kieslowski would sometimes reach gloomy conclusions and yet leave a viewer feeling pleased and even a bit awed. There was something weirdly touching about watching an incarcerated Julie Delpy waving to the husband who put her there as an act of revenge in Three Colors: White.  Kieslowski had announced his retirement after he had completed Three Colors: Red, but he his co-writer Krzysztof Piesiewicz stared developing scripts for another trilogy based around the themes of Heaven, Hell, and Purgatory. Kieslowski didnít live to make any of these films.

Like a lot of Kieslowski admirers, I was excited when I heard that Heaven was actually going into production. While the resulting film is a sincere and committed effort, it doesnít have the cohesion or the subtlety that came with the movies Kieslowski directed himself.  Itís a movie that I wish I could have liked more. Heaven looks great (a given considering Tom Tykwer of Run Lola Run and The Princess and the Warrior has directed it), and features some riveting performances. It also tackles some weighty and urgent subject matters that most filmmakers would be afraid to touch. Considering the fact that one of the screenwriters is long dead, itís a little disheartening that itís one of the few recent films that tries to addresses why some people trust bombs instead of the law to bring about justice.

Cate Blanchett (Bandits) stars as Philippa, a British teacher living in Milan, who takes drastic measures when her students get involved in drugs and her husband overdoses on illicit chemicals from the same supplier. When none of her inquiries about the pusher get any response from law enforcement (he has connections on the inside), she plants a bomb in his trashcan. Instead of stopping the crimes, the bomb winds up killing four innocent people. The cops quickly apprehend her and start grilling her as if she were a hardened terrorist. Filippo (Giovanni Ribisi, The Boiler Room), the police stenographer, who conveniently also speaks English, quickly senses sheís not and starts taking steps to help her escape.

Having similar names, itís not surprising they share a birthday. One of Kieslowskiís favorite themes was parallel lives. This was especially evident in The Double Life of Veronique and Three Colors: Red.

When Kieslowski was directing, though, the moviesí ideas didnít seem quite so bombastic. Kieslowski kept some of his character interactions in the background as if he were waiting for the viewer to figure out what he was doing. You had to watch his movies a couple of times because the characters would rarely directly address what was happening on the screen.  In Heaven, Tykwer practically advertises the motifs. As the movie progresses, Blanchett and Ribisi even start to physically resemble each other (the two have to alter their appearances when they run from the authorities). The movie ultimately feels unsatisfying because viewers are given little chance to reach their own conclusions until the almost dreamlike image that closes Heaven. Itís almost as if Heaven were a rough draft of a Kieslowski film. The spare music resembles Zbigniew Preisnerís scores for Three Colors and The Decalogue, and Ribisi bears a strange resemblance to Zbigniew Zamachowski, a leading actor in both. Itís hard to tell where and if Tykwer takes over because his The Princess and the Warrior has a similar pace. Still, if Heaven didnít have those weird reminders, it wouldnít feel like an anemic substitute.

While these factors seem to prevent Heaven from transcending its roots, Tykwer really hasnít done anything to be ashamed of here. He coaxes some first-rate work from the leads. Whereas his previous flicks like Run Lola Run bordered on fantasy, Heaven features realistic interrogation sequences. This may be due to the fact that screenwriter Krzysztof Piesiewicz was an attorney for the Solidarity union in Poland, and legal motifs run through much of Kieslowskiís films, particularly in Three Colors: Red and A Short Film about Killing. All of these films present a complex picture of the legal system that is both corrupt and yet preferable to vigilantism.

Tykwer is an intriguing filmmaker in his own right, and his creative approach to storytelling seems a bit stifled here. He sometimes reveals the same tale three different ways. While itís easy to see why heíd be eager to bring a coda to Kieslowskiís legacy, itís more satisfying when heís just being himself.

Directed by:
Tom Tykwer

Starring:
Cate Blanchett
Giovanni Ribisi
Remo Girone
Stefania Rocca
Alessandro Sperduti
Mattia Sbragia
Stefano Santospago

Written by:
Krzysztof Kieslowski
Krzysztof Piesiewicz

Rating:
R - Restricted.
Under 17 requires
parent or adult
guardian
.

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