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Wednesday, March 12, 2003

Surviving a slow descent into heaven


Rating: * * * * (out of 5)
Director: Tom Tykwer
Running time: 96 minutes
Language: English and Italian
Currently showing

If "Run, Lola, Run" showed director Tom Tykwer's four-to-the-floor techno-fueled side, then "Heaven" is his ambient remix. Where "Lola" was frenetic, rhythmic and bouncing off the walls, "Heaven" is pensive, still and restrained. And yet one can clearly see the same themes, the same riffs, coursing through both films: the idea of giving up everything -- everything -- for love, and a strong sense of destiny, that each moment contains the potential to alter our lives irrevocably.

News photo
Giovanni Ribisi and Cate Blanchett in "Heaven"

But rather strangely for a film that feels so Tykwer, "Heaven" originated from a script penned by the late Krzysztof Kieslowski and his writing partner Krzysztof Piesiewicz. After the triumph of his "Three Colors" films -- "Red," "White" and "Blue" -- Kieslowski was imagining another trilogy of "Heaven," "Hell," and "Purgatory." Only the script to "Heaven" was finished prior to Kieslowski's death in 1996, and it was left gathering dust for many years as Miramax honcho Harvey Weinstein tried to find someone to realize Kieslowski's vision.

That someone was Tykwer, who, in an interview with The Japan Times, was not at first enthusiastic about working with someone else's screenplay. "I'd read so many scripts, some really good ones, but in the end, it was always like, 'Why me?' It's just material where you need craft, not a voice."

But "Heaven" was different. "I found myself reading it as if it was my own and realized it was the first time I'd encountered a screenplay that was part of my own fantasy world," he explains.

And when you think about it, Tykwer's obsessions aren't that far removed from Kieslowski's. "The major interest we share is in the capacity of unconditional love, love as a power that is a source of spiritual strength in all of us, that can bring redemption," he says.

Nevertheless, like Kieslowski's "Three Colors" trilogy -- with its oblique focus on liberty, equality and fraternity -- "Heaven" is a somewhat ironic title, held like a blade to the throat of the film's story. It opens tensely, with a very hardcore-looking young woman named Philippa (Cate Blanchett) committing an act of urban terrorism in Turin. She ascends a skyscraper and surreptitiously leaves a homemade bomb in the wastepaper basket of a corporate executive.

Without knowing anything about her motives, we watch as a maid unwittingly collects the trash and is blown to bits, along with a few bystanders, when the bomb detonates minutes later. The police raid Philippa's apartment and seize her as she lies in bed. "OK," she says limply, resigned to her fate. Cut to the title credit, "Heaven," and a long, low booming piano chord. How will we possibly get to heaven from this personal hell?

Philippa is brought from her cell to be interrogated by the police. Present is a stenographer named Filipo (Giovanni Ribisi), who serves as a translator for the English-speaking Philippa. She gives the reasons for her actions and like many a vigilante, she has a case. But only then -- in one of the most stunning performances of sheer emotional collapse you will ever see -- she learns of the maid, the father and children she has inadvertently killed. Blanchett has always been a powerful actress, but what she does here is devastating.

Tykwer notes that it was a difficult scene, requiring four days to capture the intensity and the reeling sequence of shots between Philippa and her interrogators. "This scene was crucial," explains Tykwer. "The audience knows she's done this terrible thing and they've given up on her, and here she has to lose this front of toughness and reveal something human and tender within. You know, actors start off knowing the script and creating their characters and knowing what's going to happen, but for a scene like this, they have to get beyond all that, and come up with something immediate and pure."

Philippa faints from the shock and only the sympathetic Filipo comes to her aid. When she opens her eyes, he's holding her hand, and what he feels at this moment changes his life. Within days he's come up with a plan to spring her from jail and to flee with her to an uncertain future. But while Filipo dares to hope, against all odds, Philippa takes a darker view: She's acutely aware of her own guilt, and utterly disillusioned. "I've ceased to believe in sense, in justice, in life," she says, "I want the end to come soon."

Tykwer aims for an elegiac tone, using lots of soaring, eye-of-God overhead shots and deliberate, smooth cutting to impart an inexorable, slow-motion feel to events that are spinning out of control -- the viewer is in the eye of the hurricane. "It took 10 months to edit the film, to achieve the right tone," Tykwer explains. "I wanted to focus very much on the story, make it very direct and clear, and get the ideas across."

Enhancing the effect is an introspective, minimal score by Arvo Part; indeed, the film's music, images, cuts, performances and pauses all seem synced to some innate rhythm. Tykwer, who composed his own techno score for "Lola," has a very musical approach to film; it influences his work on a deep level. "Music affects you in a more abstract way; it's able to communicate ideas impressionistically," he says. "This is something I always try to do in my films. I consider myself a maker of atmospheres, actually."

As for the soundtrack, Tykwer adds: "It's important, of course, but so is cutting it, playing a scene without it. The use of silence is also musical."

Somewhere, somehow, "Heaven" leaves us hoping that these doomed lovers will find their happiness. But as certain as "Bonnie & Clyde," they are doomed. How Tykwer spins that into redemption is as surprising as it is unabashedly romantic. The end will leave you wondering if heaven is of this world, or in escaping from it, but as Tykwer readily admits: "My films pose questions, they don't provide answers. The films I like are the ones that leave room for the viewer to consider the ideas."

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