A widowed English teacher and a younger Italian cop end up on the run to the deep blue yonder in "Heaven," an accessibly arty romantic thriller with aspirations to something higher.
A widowed English teacher and a younger Italian cop end up on the run to the deep blue yonder in “Heaven,” an accessibly arty romantic thriller with aspirations to something higher. Based on a screenplay by the late Krzysztof Kieslowski and his writing partner Krzysztof Piesiewicz, this first English-language outing by “Run Lola Run” helmer Tom Tykwer sports a lustrous performance by Cate Blanchett that gives the movie much of its final sheen but still can’t keep it on the rails as the already flimsy story starts to disintegrate in the final act. Business looks to be warmer in Europe than the U.S. for this rather specialized item, though the presence of Blanchett and Giovanni Ribisi should squeeze the most returns from its modest arena.
Script by Kieslowski, who died in 1996, has had a long passage to the screen. Part of a trilogy entitled “Heaven, Hell & Purgatory,” pic was shot July-September 2000 and finally premiered Feb. 6 as the opening attraction at the 52nd Berlin Film Festival. German release is slated for Feb. 21, but Miramax is holding off Statesiderelease until Oct. 25.
Despite its lengthy gestation, there’s little sense of indecisiveness in the finished product. Pic feels utterly confident for most of its very trim 96 minutes, with a steady forward momentum (even when not much physical is actually happening on screen) and razor-sharp control in the lensing by Tykwer’s regular d.p. Frank Griebe.
However, auds expecting the pure adrenaline of “Lola” or the visual gymnastics and elaborate set pieces of “The Princess and the Warrior” will be disappointed — as will anyone hoping for the emotional and spiritual depth of Kieslowski’s late work.
At heart, “Heaven” is a very small film, centered on an unlikely couple, that flirts with the Polish maestro’s favorite themes of quest and redemption but essentially remains a Tom Tykwer movie about two outsiders challenging the system.
After an opening that prepares the viewer for the fairytale finale, pic gets straight down to business with Philippa (Blanchett) shown preparing a bomb, striding through the streets of Turin and planting it in the office trash can of her victim, Marco Vendice (Stefano Santospago). He’s a businessman-cum-drug dealer she holds responsible for the death of her husband and corruption of several of her students.
Tense, pacey sequence makes a gripping intro, especially when — in a development that some sensitive souls may find unsettling post-Sept. 11 — her plan goes awry and results in the death of four innocent victims. Hauled in by the police for questioning, Philippa is shocked to the core when she hears what happened.
During her interrogation by the public prosecutor (Alberto Di Stasio) and major in charge of the case, Pini (Matthia Sbragia) — who is secretly in cahoots with Vendice — she attracts the attention of a young cop, Filippo (Ribisi), who translates for her. In the first of several, typically Tykwer contrivances that pepper the script, Philippa has insisted on speaking in English, despite having been shown earlier to be very proficient in Italian.
Filippo ends up falling hard for the beautiful, determined Englishwoman, helps her to escape police custody and hides her in an attic in the same building. When she makes it clear that she wants to face the music for her accidental manslaughter, but is still determined to kill Vendice first, he helps her achieve this by having Vendice come to a fictitious meeting in Pini’s office.
At this point, almost an hour in, the pic should rightly end, given Philippa’s earlier pronouncement. Instead, it morphs into an on-the-run yarn, as Filippo throws his lot in with the woman he says he loves, and the two travel to the picturesque old hill town, Montepulciano, where Filippo was raised. As she shaves her head, and they become almost a matching pair in looks and clothes, it’s clear from the overall tone that this is one road movie that’s eventually going to run out of road.
Unfortunately, it’s in this third act, outside the claustrophobic confines of Turin, that the movie starts running on empty. Despite lines from Philippa like “I’ve ceased to believe in sense, justice, life” and (when told he loves her) “I know. It’s just that I want the end to come soon,” the film fails to take the expected leap into a more spiritual dimension one expects of a Kieslowski script. There’s little feeling of two souls coalescing, of any true redemption for the tragic figures — making the final minutes seem fanciful at best and plain silly at worst.
However, Blanchett’s riveting performance goes a long way to redeeming the movie itself. Clothed in the simplest duds (white top and jeans), and adopting a flat, immaculate English accent, she’s coolly authoritative, quietly sexy and emotionally extrapolated by turns, with Griebe’s camera all but caressing her features.
Although he can’t hold a candle to such high screen-wattage, Ribisi, generally a showy actor, goes in the opposite direction and in the process makes a thoroughly convincing Italian cop. In a pivotal scene with his father (Remo Girone), he shows surprising depths in his rather sketchily drawn character. Stefania Rocca is thrown away in a tiny role near the end as an old friend of Philippa.
The minimalist musical score, drawn from works by Arvo Part, makes a perfect accompaniment to the movie’s tight, highly designed look, which only mellows in the final act with the warmer hues of rural Italy.
Production was shot in Naples, Turin, France and Germany.
Filippo - Giovanni Ribisi
His Father - Remo Girone
Regina - Stefania Rocca
Major Pini - Matthia Sbragia
Public Prosecutor - Alberto Di Stasio
Marco Vendice - Stefano Santospago
Ariel - Alessandro Sperduti
Inspector - Giovanni Vettorazzo
Lieutenant - Gianfranco Barra
Caretaker - Vincent Riotta
(English & Italian dialogue.)