“Heaven” - Tom Tykwer (2002)

Heaven (2002) is a romantic thriller that fascinatingly features the combined virtues of its two talented creators, Tom Tykwer and Krzysztof KieslowskiFilm director Tykwer presents this tale with the visually kinetic flare one would expect on the basis of his earlier work (Winter Sleepers (1997), and Run Lola, Run (1998)). But it is Kieslowski’s story/screenplay (co-written with his usual coauthor, Krzysztof Piesiewicz) that makes this film stand out from other thrillers and raises it to another level.  Kieslowski had intended this to be the first part of a trilogy, whose other two parts were to be Hell and Purgatory, but his death in 1996 prevented him from completing that project.

On the surface, the story may seem to be simple and outlandish. A woman seeking revenge for  her husband’s death by drug overdose attempts to assassinate the drug kingpin behind her husband’s addiction.  However, her assassination attempt goes awry and leads to the deaths of four innocent people instead of her intended victim.   She is immediately arrested and confesses to her crime.  But while she is testifying to the police in custody, a low-level police officer becomes enamored of the woman and tries to whisk her away to safety.  Most of the film is devoted to his lone efforts, in the face of impossible odds, to somehow rescue this women from the punishment  that seems to be inescapable. 

Just looking at the plot on that level, the story may seem preposterous and morally questionable.  Why should we be interested in helping a confessed murderer escape facing the consequences of her act?  Indeed film critic Roger Ebert questioned the morality of the story for this reason [1].  But if you are familiar with Kieslowski, you know that he sees human engagement in all its inscrutable and multifaceted complexity.  In his acclaimed ten-part television series, Dekalog (1989), Kieslowski had earlier explored the range of the Bible’s Ten Commandments and the extent to which it is ultimately impossible to formulate a fully structured logical framework for moral and ethical behaviour [2].  What is invariably needed to complete the picture is an injection of the mysterious powers of love and compassion. This territory is explored further here in Heaven’s fantasy-tinged theatrics.

In fact there are several themes explored in Heaven.  Morality is one of them, but it is overshadowed by two other themes:
  • the nature of love and compassion
  • the contingent nature of existence: the degree to which chance governs our existence and the consequent extent to which we are to be held responsible.
At the outset of the film, an Italian police officer, later identified as Filippo (played by Giovanni Ribisi), is being given helicopter pilot training by means of a flight simulator.  At the end of the training session Filippo elevates the simulated helicopter upwards indefinitely, at which his instructor remarks, “in a real helicopter you can’t just keep flying higher.”  Filippo then asks, “how high can I fly?”  Indeed, that is the question concerning contingency that will be put to the test.

Then the film turns to the assassin, Philippa (Cate Blanchett), and her attempt to set a time bomb in a high-rise office building that is intended to kill a corporate executive, Mr.Vendice,  who she knows is a  clandestine drug overlord.  It is all carefully planned; but happenstance intervenes, and the bomb is accidentally moved so that when it detonates, it kills four innocent people and not Mr. Vendice. 

Philippa had been trying to get the Carabinieri, the Italian national police, to take action against Mr. Vendice and had identified herself to the police force on numerous occasions.  What she did not know was that the police had corrupt elements who were in on Vendice’s drug trade. These people had suppressed her revelations and when the bomb wet off, they knew who was responsible and immediately had Philippa arrested.  It is only at this point, eleven minutes into the film that the film titles appear.

Although Philippa is clearly guilty of the killing, she is brought to the prosecutor at the Carabinieri headquarters to make her own statement, and she uses the opportunity to reveal, once again, what she knows about Mr. Vendice.  Since Philippa is English (she works in Italy as an English teacher), she wants to testify in English.  So Filippo, a young police clerk in attendance who knows English, is recruited to be her translator. What none of them realize is that also in attendance at her testimony is Major Pini (Mattia Sbragia), who is in on the drug corruption and wants to see Philippa and her “evidence” eradicated.

While testifying to the prosecutor, Philippa is overcome with horror of her crime and faints to the floor.  Filippo bends down to attend to her, and when he looks into her eyes and holds her hand, he falls in love with her.  Philippa is unaware of this event, but from here on, Filippo is quietly but unreservedly in love.

Filippo is now faced with an apparently hopeless task: to save his beloved who is imprisoned  for a confessed heinous crime.  The rest of the film covers his efforts, which are divided up into five “operations” – we can call them ops, stratagems, gambits, capers, maneuvers, whatever – I will call them “ops”.  Each of the ops faces impossible odds against success and relies on fortuitous circumstances to come out just right.  In fact the infinitesimal likelihood of success for each successive op seems to decrease as we move forward in the story.  But love, not practicality, is the driver in this tale. Here, too, there is improbability, but as the story unfolds, the viewer is drawn into the relentless train of unlikely contingency that drives the action..
Op 1
First, Filippo needs to communicate surreptitiously with Philippa.  Through an extraordinarily contrived electrical accident, he sneaks a small tape recorder into Philippa’s pocket during one of her testimony sessions.  When she listens to the tape back in her cell, she learns of his plan and records her willingness to proceed.  However, the chances of Filippo’s plan succeeding take a devastating hit when we learn that the Carabinieri secretly record everything that goes on in Philippa’s cell; so they know all about Filippo’s intentions.

Op 2
Filippo has a plan to sneak Philippa up into the unused attic of the police station.  This caper is even more outlandish and unlikely, but it is successful.  In the evening when Filippo goes to join Philippa in the attic, she tells him that the only reason she is cooperating with Filippo is to see if she can have one more opportunity to murder the drug operator Vendice. 

Op 3
Filippo’s love for Philippa is without reservations, and he is totally committed to helping her, despite her apparent dismissal of lawful solutions to her frustrations.  In that evening he sneaks her into the office of the corrupt Carabinieri Major Pini and then, pretending to be a Pini assistant, manages to convince Vendice to rush over to the office that very night.  Again there are lucky circumstances, but everything breaks in Filippo’s way, and Philippa does kill Vendice. 

Op 4
After spending the night in the police headquarters attic, they still have to figure out a way to escape from the building, which is full of police looking for the two missing fugitives.  Early in the morning they sneak down to the garage and jump into the back of a milk delivery truck that is making its rounds.  The fact that they could find a spot behind some milk cartons to hide is something that Filippo is unlikely to have foreseen.  When the milk truck, still making its rounds, passes near the train station, the two fugitives jump out the back and get onto a train headed for the Italian countryside, where one of Philippa’s good friends lives.

Op 5
In the small picturesque town of Montepulciano, they are less likely to be identified, and things are more relaxed.  Philippa and Filippo enter a church, and while sitting in the pews, Philippa “confesses” to Filippo about all the past wrongs she has committed in her life.  She tells him that she has “ceased to believe’.When Filippo asks her in what she has ceased to believe, she tells him, “sense, justice, life, . . .”.  This is a real Kieslowski moment. It is at this point that he tells her that he loves her.  He does not want to possess her; he wants to become “one” with her, and this metaphorical union is progressing by degrees.  Their names are similar, their clothes are similar, and in order to lessen the likelihood of identification, they go to a barber and get their heads shaved. So now they look very similar, too.

Filippo’s father (Remo Girone), who is a senior policeman and sympathetic to his son’s plight, arrives in the town and tells them there is now a massive manhunt throughout Italy in search of them.  He offers to help them return to society, but Filippo and Philippa swear by their now mutually-confessed love and say they will struggle on alone.

Filippo and Philippa make it to their sympathetic friend’s countryside home, and that evening in the beautiful countryside surroundings, they consummate their love.  This is movingly presented by Tykwer in three successive long shots (roughly 30 seconds each) showing the two of them reveling in nature's wonders and each other.

In the morning a massive and heavily armed Carabinieri SWAT team arrives.  This leads to the final and most improbable escape yet.  They sneak onto a momentarily unattended Carabinieri helicopter and take off as the film ends.
We never know what happens to the two protagonists, so the adventure story, as well as the morality tale, are incomplete.  But the love story has reached its dramatic fulfillment.  And love is ultimately what the film is about. 

The production values of Heaven are of a high order.  In particular Tykwer’s camera work, editing, and narrative pacing are all superb.  Also excellent is the acting – especially that of Cate Blanchett, Giovanni Ribisi, and Remo Girone.  They manage to make what is essentially a fantasy seem real.

However, the moral side of this tale, to the frustration of some viewers, is set aside for the consideration of more personal and existential concerns. The probabilistic unreality of some of the film’s sequences make one wonder about the degree to which life is governed by chance or by some higher authorities. This consideration is enhanced by Tykwer’s occasional downward-looking aerial shots, suggesting a perspective outside the scope of the human participants.  And love seems to be part of this equation.

In fact the eternal mystery and magic of love come to life in this film as it unfolds.  How could Filippo love Philippa so suddenly? Moreover, Filippo is seven years younger than Philippa, and both his natural reticence and the constraining circumstances give him no opportunity to show himself to her.   How could she come to love him?   It is the artistry of the contributors to this film that make it come to life and help us see that love is just as much a driver of this world’s experiences and truths as nature’s mechanics.

  1. Roger Ebert, “Heaven”, RogerEbert.com (18 October 2002).    
  2. Episodes 5, 6, and 8 in that 10-part series relate most closely to the moral issues covered in Heaven.

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