The story is a virtual invitation to mawkishness: a renowned orchestral conductor returns to his tiny home town after suffering a near-fatal heart attack and is rejuvenated when he takes over leadership of the church choir. But while the Swedish film “As It Is in Heaven” doesn’t avoid all the pitfalls, it plays things out quirkily enough to surprise and engage us.
The main character is Daniel Dareus, who—as we see in flashback—was a shy, music-obsessed mama’s boy who was brutalized by the local bullies as a kid and lost his mother in an untimely accident. It’s no wonder that as a conductor he’s become a high-strung perfectionist, so much in demand that he’s booked years in advance. The stress proves too much for his cardiac health, and after getting what amounts to a terminal diagnosis, returns to his old village, taking up residence in the abandoned schoolhouse and longing for solitude to soothe his frazzled nerves.
But the minister Stig (Niklas Falk) approaches him to revive the parish chorus, and after initially declining, he accepts the post, eventually applying himself to it in so quirkily personal a fashion that the rehearsals alter the lives of many of the participants and scandalize Stig. Among those affected are the minister, who’s estranged from his wife Inger (Ingela Olsson) when he dismisses Daniel; Lena (Frida Hallgren), the loose supermarket clerk who’s attracted to Daniel; Gabrielle (Helen Sjoholm), a battered wife whose liberalization rouses the anger of her brutal husband Conny Morberg), one of the bullies who used to torment Daniel; and, of course, Daniel himself, who finds himself revived by the experience. The big finale comes when local entrepreneur Arnie (Lennart Jakhel) enrolls the much-improved chorus in a competition in Austria.
One might expect that “As In Heaven” would be a “Mr. Holland’s Opus” in a more wintry climate with a more spiritual bent, but it’s not. There’s a toughness to the movie that helps it transcend the cliched premise. Though the increasing attraction between Daniel and Lena has a somewhat formulaic feel, the performances give it deeper dimension; and the relationships between Srig and Inger on the one hand and Gabriella and Conny on the other are uncompromisingly drawn. Even a basically comic figures like Arne is given darker shadings in incidents involving other chorus members. And the cast invest the characters with a welcome sense of reality beneath the inevitable local color. Unfortunately, director Kay Pollak and his four co-scenarists haven’t been able to come up with a denouement that fully comes off; the ending does, however, have the virtue of subverting expectations.
With the cinematography of Harald Paalgaard making fine use of the isolated locations and reveling in the changes of season they afford, “As in Heaven” captures an honest sense of place to accompany the feeling of human truth provided by the script and actors. The result is that it depicts a town you’ll be glad to have visited and people you’ll be pleased to have spent some time with.