Heaven

March, 2002, Drama

HEAVEN

Some movies are so rich in symbolism they function as a sort of cinematic Rorschach test; what reveals itself depends largely upon what the viewer brings into the theater. Such is the case with this gorgeously shot version of a screenplay by the Polish writer/director team of Kieslowski and Piesiewicz, the pair that examined the 10 commandments a few years ago in a series of one-hour mediations which carry the collective title of The Decalogue. That work is suffused with religious themes, even though the creators claim they brought no theological interpretation to their material. The same can be said of this film, which on the basis of imagery alone, provides more than enough for Deists to ponder. 

And it's a lot more accessible, (in terms of plot) than its highly praised predecessor; perhaps that's because it was actually filmed by German director Tom Tykwer, who astounded audiences a few years ago with the hyper kinetic Run Lola Run. The result is both an intriguing thriller and a maddeningly allegorical work similar in tone, if not in content, to Breaking The Waves.

Cate Blanchett, the Australian actress whose expressive face is used brilliantly here, plays a school teacher in Turin whose husband has succumbed to drugs provided by a businessman Blanchett has frustratingly tried to expose to the police. When her efforts are continuously rebuffed, she decides to kill the well-placed drug dealer by placing a time bomb in his wastebasket. Through a quirk of fate, (a major theme of this movie) the wastebasket is emptied before it can perform its deadly task on the intended victim, causing innocent people to suffer instead.

Blanchett is duly arrested and interrogated by the very officials that have frustrated her attempts to bring justice to the drug dealer. But a young policeman assigned to the case, played with quiet, steady intensity by Giovanni Ribisi, (Boiler Room) plans an ingenious escape for his captive, and as the film tracks their flight across the starkly beautiful landscape of Tuscany's hill country, the characters and the images Tykwer surrounds them with grow ever more surreal. What begins as a tale that can be interpreted quite literally gradually morphs into something far more profound- a meditation on the themes of personal responsibility, chance meetings, unintended consequences, remorse and redemption. 

Blanchett, remarkable in her ability to convey the conflicting emotions of hatred for her husband's putative killer and unbearable sorrow for the damage she's done to the innocent, presents a delicately shaded performance here which contrasts most favorably with the intensity she so richly provided in Elizabeth. She accomplishes that with a series of facial expressions so subtle her lust for revenge can plausibly coexist with the realization she's committed a horrible crime. The resulting presentation of moral issues comes wrapped in profoundly religious symbols: confession, (in church, if not to a priest) penance (shaved heads) and redemption, (ascension) are visualized in a manner which conforms perfectly to the quiet, almost languorous pace of the film's final sequences. The composition of those shots in which Ribisi and Blanchett share confidences suggest that Ribisi's character can be seen as guardian angel just as easily as smitten, impressionable lover. The meaning of the film's title is captured perfectly in the images that bookend the action, explaining a seemingly irrelevant opening sequence, (a simulated helicopter flight) by juxtaposing it with the final, enigmatic yet lyrical denouement.

I don't doubt this film's creators could surely protest these religious interpretations, which I found both compelling and fascinating. But that's a brilliant Rorschach for you--bringing out what you yourself bring in. For me, this breathtakingly beautiful movie, with its austere cinematography and elegantly understated performances becomes not only one of the best films I've seen all year, but an opportunity to explore one's most fundamental beliefs in a hauntingly beautiful parable. It's an especially demanding film, but if you take the trouble to see it, be prepared to have it linger in your mind.

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