One thing you can be sure of in a Tom Tykwer film is that it will be beautifully crafted. Another is that it will be about something–it will have a philosophical underpinning, not didactically overstated but nonetheless subtly informing events. His first English-language effort, “Heaven,” certainly scores on the first level: it’s a gorgeous piece of filmmaking, almost hypnotic in its effect, with some compositions that are absolutely breathtaking. And it has substance beneath the elegant surface: based as it is on a script by the late Polish director Krzysztof Kieslowski and his collaborator Krzysztof Piesiewicz, it proves an entrancing examination of the themes of guilt and redemption. The mixture of high artistry, visual poetry and depth of meaning makes for an endlessly fascinating and compelling film.
“Heaven” opens with a sequence that would have made the Hitchcock of “Sabotage” proud. A distraught young woman (Cate Blanchett) makes a bomb and plants it in a waste basket in an office atop a high-rise building. After she leaves, however, the basket is emptied by a janitor and the contents transported onto an elevator on which a man has brought his two young daughters; and Tykwer lingers on the closed doors to build almost unbearable tension. Cannily shot and edited, it’s a powerful prologue.
Soon the woman, Philippa, an English teacher in a Turin school, is arrested and taken in for questioning. She insists on giving her testimony in English, prompting Filippo (Giovanni Ribisi), a young recording officer, to serve as translator. Philippa is shocked to learn that the intended victim of her act, a businessman named Vendice (Stefano Stantospargo) whom she’s repeatedly denounced to the cops as a drug lord, has escaped, and that innocents have died instead. Evidence of Vendice’s guilt in her possession, moreover, has disappeared, and it becomes apparent that a high-level cop (Matthia Sbragia) is in league with the criminal and covering up the truth. Filippo, the son of a policeman himself, grows enamored with Philippa and eventually, with the help of his angelic young brother Ariel (Alessandro Sperduti), who happens also to be her pupil, plots her escape. He also helps her to complete her mission by killing Vendice. But though Philippa believes that she needs to pay for her crime, Filippo spirits her away to the picturesque small town of Montepulciano, and along the way the two become mirror images of each other, with shaved heads and the same clothes (white shirt and jeans). Eventually, however, the police make an appearance, shattering the couple’s brief idyll and leading to a mysterious close that’s telegraphed at the very start.
A simple precis can’t explain why “Heaven”is such an extraordinary film. The plot is certainly simple enough, and it must be admitted that the narrative connections aren’t very carefully drawn: specifics about the escape aren’t particularly well elucidated, and quick jumps take us over troublesome moments (how do the duo get aboard that train?) But like the chapters of Kieslowski’s masterful “Decalogue,” the film isn’t so much about linear storytelling as it is about the mysterious nature of human relationships and the moral greyness that attends human actions, no matter how well intentioned, as well as the consequences that derive from them. The script confronts these issues obliquely rather than dogmatically; much of what transpires is in the form of brief glances, hushed silences and subdued expressions of emotion. There are extraordinarily affecting dramatic moments–a last meeting between Filippo and his father is deeply moving–but understatement is the norm, even in the occasionally humorous interludes. Tykwer does justice to Kieslowski’s allusive vision by giving the film a dreamlike texture and a gentle, unforced pace. He achieves a few shots that are literally awesome: a far shot of the sun-bleached horizon where the two runaways disrobe and approach one another in silhouette beside a huge, towering tree is amazing; from the distance the two figures look almost like the shadows of the sorts of tall, gangly aliens familiar from “Close Encounters of the Third Kind.” (The distancing, of course, suggests how they might appear to the eye of God.) The late Polish master’s work has surely been treated with taste and insight by the young German filmmaker; it’s an act of homage every bit as great as, but more aesthetically successful than, the one Spielberg paid Kubrick in “A.I.”
The leads are remarkable, too. Blanchett, who stumbled badly in “Charlotte Gray” last year, is simply radiant here, and Ribisi is astonishingly convincing as an Italian cop, adopting a soft, quiet boyishness that seems perfectly in tune with the character. (His Italian is convincing, too.) The remaining cast members are truly secondary, but Remo Girone and Sperduti have fine moments as Filippo’s father and brother. One has to mention Frank Griebe’s luscious cinematography, which flawlessly meets Tykwer’s considerable demands.
It must be admitted that there will be those who don’t take to “Heaven.” Some will undoubtedly dismiss it as simple, pretentious, turgid, and perhaps even foolish. But others will find that its subtle treatment of serious issues of moral ambiguity and its characteristically Tykwerian exaltation of the redemptive power of love, coupled with a level of craftsmanship rarely equaled on the contemporary screen, make for a nearly transcendental cinematic experience.