After completing the remarkable Three Colors trilogy – one of the great cinematic achievements of the 1990s – writer/director Krzysztof Kieslowski began planning a new trilogy of thematically connected features: Heaven, Hell and Purgatory. The trilogy would be loosely inspired by Dante's The Divine Comedy, much as his remarkable television miniseries The Decalogue was loosely inspired by the Ten Commandments. The films would be directed by Kiewslowski, and co-written with his Three Colors collaborator Krzysztof Piesiewicz. Unfortunately, Kieslowski died before filming started, and only the script for Heaven had been completed. A few years later, director Tom Tykwer decided to direct the film himself as a tribute to Kieslowski.
While Tykwer might seem like an unusual choice to adapt a Kieslowski script (especially in 2002, when his best-known work was the hyper-energetic Run Lola Run), the two filmmakers have more in common than you might think. Both have demonstrated a fascination with the way a small, seemingly insignificant turn of events can dramatically change a person's life, and Heaven is yet another exploration of that notion. Tykwer dispenses with his customary energy, instead adopting a slower, more methodical approach that feels like a fairly good approximation (if not quite a replication) of Kieslowski's directorial work.
The film begins with Phillipa (Cate Blanchett, Carol), an English teacher living in Italy who has fallen into despair after watching several of her students die due to drug-related causes. She discovered that a single cartel was connected to all of these deaths, and learned the name of the man in charge of the organization. She spent years calling the police station attempting to give them this information, but no action was ever taken. Finally, after yet another death, Phillipa has determined to take action herself. She plants a bomb inside a trashcan in the cartel head's office, but the assassination attempt is a failure: the trashcan is placed on a maid's cart and carried into an elevator, where it kills the maid, a businessman and two young girls.
Phillipa is quickly arrested, and suffers an emotional breakdown upon learning the consequences of her actions. The entire affair is witnessed by a young Italian police clerk named Filippo (Giovanni Ribisi, Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow), who immediately falls deeply in love with Phillipa. He sees that she's a good person despite the awfulness of what she's done, and wants to help her in some way. He begins developing a relationship with Phillipa, and soon after begins working on a plan to help her escape and complete her vengeful mission.
This is a thoroughly international film: set in Italy, written by Polish filmmakers, helmed by a German director, starring American actors (who spend much of their screen time speaking Italian) and produced by people from Germany, France, Italy and the U.S. Part of the reason the Three Colors trilogy has resonated with so many viewers around the globe is that its themes and emotions feel universal despite many elements of cultural specificity, and that's also the case here.
Both of the lead actors do good work, particularly Blanchett as a woman forced to grapple with the realization that she has become the thing she hates most: someone responsible for the senseless death of innocent children. There are a lot of big emotions within the character, and Blanchett expertly captures all of them without overplaying any of them. Ribisi is quietly sympathetic, playing a character who has no control over what his heart is doing to him (a notion symbolized by a scene in which he wets the bed for the first time since childhood – this may be shameful, but there's nothing he can do about it). Is there any hope of a happy ending for these two? If they somehow manage to escape the law, will they be able to live with themselves?
The answer is a cryptic one, though if you look closely at the opening and closing scenes, it becomes a little less so. This is a fascinating film, but one can't help but wonder what it might have looked like as part of a trilogy rather than as a self-contained feature: Blue, White and Red are all strong films on their own terms, but taken as a whole they become something even greater. It's sad that we'll never see what Kieslowski had in mind, but Heaven is an artfully crafted, emotionally absorbing piece of an unfinished puzzle. While it isn't as visually striking as most of Kieslowski's later works (or as most of Tykwer's films, for that matter), that final shot feels like a fitting tribute to the great Polish director: a brief, transcendent moment that blurs the line between the temporal and the spiritual.
Rating: ★★★ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: R
Running Time: 97 minutes
Release Year: 2002