The untimely death of acclaimed Polish director Krzysztof Kieslowski in 1996 deprived the world of one of its most brilliant cinematic talents. Kieslowski left behind a tremendous body of work, including The Decalogue, The Double Life of Veronique, and the magnificent Trois Couleurs trilogy (Blue, White, and Red), as well as an unfilmed script which had intended to be the first entry of a new thematic trilogy. Heaven was co-written with frequent Kieslowski collaborator Krzysztof Piesiewicz, and was to have begun a new trilogy that would continue with Hell and Purgatory. While Piesiewicz has endeavored to carry on with the completion of the trilogy without Kieslowski, the unfilmed script for Heaven remained available as Kieslowski's final written work.
Catching the eye of German art-house regular Tom Tykwer, the eclectic director behind the existential action flick fave Lola Rennt (Run Lola Run) as well as the fractured but rewarding Der Krieger und die Kaiserin (The Princess and the Warrior), the powerful script for Heaven convinced Tykwer to transcend his trepidation towards the project and shoot Heaven as his next film. Rather than simply emulate the late, great director, Tykwer remained faithful to the script while imbuing the film with own style and sensibilities, a relationship oft compared to the collaboration between Spielberg and Kubrick on A.I..
Heaven stars the always-luminescent Cate Blanchett as Philippa, a British teacher in Italy whose husband died as the result of overindulgent drug use. Several of her students have also been found dead due to unfettered drug proliferation. In a defiant act of desperation and armed with a searing thirst for vengeance, Philippa schemes to assassinate the local drug czar by planting a bomb in his office. Due to a series of unplaned and tragic circumstances, the bomb detonates away from its intended target, killing four innocent bystanders: an office cleaning woman, a father, and his two young daughters.
Before the bomb's detonation, Philippa was emboldened with the certainty that life was senseless, without justice or reason. She resignated herself to the notion that her life was to end with the murder of the drug czar, whose wares killed her husband and students, going so far as to call the police forty seconds before the bomb's detonation, revealing to them her own name and the reasons for her actions. She was ready to accept her punishment, imprisonment and perhaps even death. Yet her act of vengeance -- or justice, depending upon your particular mores -- presents the viewers with a conundrum of sorts, as what began as simple retribution devolved into senseless murder. The moral ambiguity that envelope her actions permeates through to the viewer as well. Philippa unknowingly yet senselessly murdered four innocent people. Her reasons for planting the bomb are arguably justifiable, but the vigor and determination in which she initiated the self-imposed relinquishment of her own life resulted in the deaths of others who were uninvolved in her conflict.
Meanwhile, the similarly-monikered Filippo (played by Giovanni Ribisi) is a carabinieri, an officer in the military-styled Italian police force. Offering himself as a translator during Philippa's interrogation, he finds himself in love with the older woman. In her he sees escape from a world without sense, without logic, without reason. In a scene that somewhat stretches credibility, he arranges her escape from jail as the pair retreats to the Italian countryside.
Heaven is a lovely but somewhat flawed film. It flirts with moments of film greatness, featuring scenes of staggering power and beauty that, if nothing else, herald Tykwer as an assured and visionary talent. Cate Blanchett gives a muted but devastating performance that reinforces her standing as one of the most ferociously talented actors of our time. But Giovanni Ribisi is the real surprise here. Projecting innocence, naivety, and a deft mixture of fierce resolve with simple veracity in his performance, Ribisi gives what is probably the best performance of his career (I haven't seen The Mod Squad, so bear with me on this pronouncement.) Heaven falters in its inability to follow through on the questions raised by the inherent moral ambiguity of the setting. It doesn't explore many of the ethical repercussions of the film's first and second acts, instead focusing on the protagonists somewhat glib acceptance that their lives have effectively ended. It's a squandered opportunity and the film ultimately suffers for it, but what still makes the film worthwhile is Tykwer's steady handling of the story's resolution, as well as his unyielding and masterful ability in conveying the story's potency on film. Heaven is deliberately paced but neither slow nor dull, and Frank Griebe's breathtaking cinematography elevates Heaven to a Terrence Malick level of poeticism. Heaven might not be a perfect film, but its excruciating themes, luscious imagery and stellar performances resonate long after the film ends.
"The Story of Heaven" is a six-minute featurette that, while altogether too short, brings together many members of the cast and crew who share their thoughts on how this exciting project came to pass. Included in these interviews are executive producers Sydney Pollack and Anthony Minghella, producer William Horberg, director Tom Tykwer, and actors Cate Blanchett and Giovanni Ribisi. Each brought their own perspectives to the featurette and, as mentioned before, at six minutes it is simply too short; I could have watched this for an hour. Nonetheless, it transcends basic EPK material and provides some interesting insights into the project.
The Sneak Peaks section contains trailers for Blue, White, and Red, as well as a promotional trailer for Miramax entitled Miramax Year of Gold. Five Deleted Scenes are also included, with optional commentary from Tom Tykwer. You can view each scene individually or utilize the "Play All" function. Finally, a fascinating Space Cam Fly-By has been included. This four minute helicopter landscape shot is absolutely lovely. The "Space Camera" system is a camera mounted on a helicopter that provides steady camera shots through an integrated stabilization device. In other words, any shakiness brought about the helicopter's movements or wind resistance is negated, resulting in some remarkable fluidity in the Space Cam shots. The four-minute shot is steady, poetic, and absolutely breathtaking.
A hypnotic film that mesmerizes from start to finish, Heaven is one of the better films to emerge out of 2002. While its aforementioned flaws hurt the film in significant ways, one cannot deny the hyperreal lyricism that emerged out of Kieslowski's and Piesiewicz's moving script and Tykwer's singular directorial vision. I wish the film would have further explored many of the film's unresolved issues, the ethical and moral quandaries that were left behind in the wake of providing Philippa and Filipo with movement towards their desired resolution. This is a missed opportunity, but the film is nonetheless worthwhile. Heaven is a unique visual representation of tragic poeticism at its most potent.
The DVD comes complete with an excellent transfer and audio presentation. The movie simply looks and sounds wonderful, with only minor quibbles that detract from an almost stellar presentation. The supplemental material is definitely value-adding, giving the viewer a deeper appreciation of the film. Although not for all types (this film is heavily geared towards the foreign film/art house crowd), Heaven is indeed heavenly. Highly recommended!