Here’s a film that always keeps you on your toes, talking wild leaps between genres yet remaining very controlled. It opens with a what-the-fark? moment, with a crappy CGI landscape and technical voice-over in… Italian? Isn’t this supposed to be the American debut of German director Tom Tykwer? I saw the film at the Festival des Films du Monde de Montréal and at first I honestly thought I’d walked into the wrong theater. But before long the crappy CGI stops and we see that it was a flight simulator being used by Filippo, a Carabinieri for the Italian police played by Giovanni Ribisi, who IS Italian, I guess, as is pretty much the whole cast except for Ribisi’s The Gift co-star Cate Blanchett.
Blanchett’s character, Phillipa Paccard, an English teacher who finds herself in custody of the Carabinieri after the an office building bombing in which four people were killed. She doesn’t deny her involvement, but she refutes allegations by her interrogators that she’s part of a terrorist group purposely taking civil lives. She was actually after a specific man who’d brought tragedy and despair to her life… What follows is alternately a morality play in the spirit of Krzysztof Kieslowski’s “Dekalog” and “Three Colors” series (the late Polish filmmaker wrote “Heaven” and its planned sequels, “Hell” and “Purgotary” with his partner Krzysztof Piesiewicz), a thriller filled with suspense and wicked twists and, most unexpectedly, a “love story”.
Notice that the quote signs are there for a reason. While the film has been marketed as a “love on the run” tale, don’t expect an exploitative road movie. In fact, what “Heaven” ultimately calls to mind the most is Terrence Malick’s Badlands, another “love on the run” film which was anything but. The thing about the couples in both movies is that they’re barely couples in the conventional movie sense. They don’t meet-cute, they’re not overrun by passion, they’re not meant to be together… The just stumble into each other’s path matter-of-factly and somehow end up sticking together for a while. This isn’t True Love, it’s convenient companionship in inconvenient circumstances.
Our Carabinieri does have a puppy love thing going on, like Martin Sheen’s Kit thought Sissy Spacek’s Holly looked awful pretty twirling her baton on her front lawn. And as Holly was really just using Kit to escape her homdrum life, Phillipa uses Filippo to escape, literally in her case. Eventually, though, both women come to make a choice, letting themselves be used by the men they are using. Maybe this is love after all, just not the glossy kind movies usually show us…
The Badlands connection is not only thematic but also stylistic. “Heaven” is as deliberate as Tykwer’s Run Lola Run was frenetic, taking on the contemplative and lyrical tone of Malick’s films. Tykwer and cinematographer Frank Griebe revel in architecture and nature with humans sometimes just little specks in the immensity of hills and trees. Combined with the minimalist piano score and the sporadic dialogue, I’m sure “Heaven” will be accused of being pretentious, but that would be dismissing how exciting and even funny it can get in between bouts of visual poetry. You could also nit-pick at some of the coincidences in the plot, but I see them as means to an end- and what an ending! The last shot is downright transcendent, tying up the whole film perfectly.
The film was originally supposed to be released on September 14, 2001, but the scene involving a bomb going off in a skyscraper forced Miramax to move it up more than a year (it’s scheduled for October 4th 02). This is indeed unsettling and, even if Phillipa has good reasons to do what she does and she clearly didn’t intend to kill innocents, there’s no justifying such acts. But you can’t hold this against the film because Blanchett’s character herself comes to realise that violence doesn’t accomplish anything. Hence, the film isn’t irresponsible but only more relevant. “Heaven” is Badlands for the war-on-terrorism era.