By Paul Newall (2005)
Although he had claimed upon its completion that the Three Colours Trilogy would be his final work, Krzysztof Kieślowski was writing (with his long-time collaborator Kryzsztof Piesiewicz) a second trilogy at the time of his death, to include films entitled Heaven, Hell and Purgatory.
When the Polish master died, the script for the first was passed to the German director Tom Tykwer who had himself already plumbed the subjects of fate and coincidence, as well as "the relationship between the two", and was therefore a perfect choice to interpret a work sitting squarely in Kieślowskian territory.
The plot of Heaven is quite straightforward. Philippa Paccard, an English teacher working in Italy, is distraught at the extent of the local drug trade and the impact it is having on her students, one of whom has just hung herself leaving a note saying simply "throw me out with the trash". She is recently widowed, her husband having himself overdosed and been involved with a man named Vendice whom she believes to be controlling much of the trafficking. She has been writing to the Carabinieri over an extended period but they have done nothing, due (as we later learn) to at least one of their officers being involved himself. Having discovered a bomb in her apartment constructed (apparently) by her dead husband, she decides to take matters into her own hands and manages to plant it in a wastepaper bin in Vendice's office. At the last moment a cleaner arrives and empties the contents, making her way to a lift to continue with her duties on another floor. A man and his two young daughters already in the lift are killed along with the cleaner when the bomb detonates. Paccard is arrested (having confessed by telephone) and interrogated, believed by the investigators to be part of a larger terrorist network.
At this point we meet Filippo, an officer in the Carabinieri and son of the former head for Turin. Acting as a scribe for the case, he offers to interpret when Philippa insists on testifying in English. She tells the Carabinieri that she has records of all her correspondence with them, explaining the drug problem and her suspicions, but none are found (due, it is implied, to a Maggiore Pini destroying them to cover his own tracks). Philippa believes she has accomplished what she set out to do until she is told that she killed innocents instead, at which point she breaks down (a spellbinding performance by Cate Blanchett, it should be said). She faints and Filippo rushes to her aid, whereupon she wakes up gripping his hand – a shot that Tykwer lingers over just as surely as Kieślowski would have. Filippo resolves to help her escape, later giving as his reasoning that his younger brother Ariel was in her class and she was his favourite teacher. He passes her recorded instructions, which Pini is able to eavesdrop on. The latter confers with Vendice and plans to let her go, in order to bring about her death on recapture and hence keep their involvement secret, but Filippo changes his plan at the last moment and they lure Vendice to Pini’s office while the Carabinieri are searching for them. Philippa shots and kills Vendice with a gun Filippo provides, whereupon the pair go on the run and ultimately escape. Where they escape to, however, is the important detail.
Tykwer has said of Heaven that "the basic theme is redemption". It is how this comes about that provides the depth of the movie, in which the action and the dialogue – even between the main characters, which may not be obvious on first viewing – is minimal. In his message to Philippa, Filippo explains that once they have been able to break her out of custody,
... then we will think what to do next, because I believe there will be something and it will be beautiful.
Even before this, after watching Philippa cry on learning of the deaths she did not intend, Filippo has admitted to his father that he is in love. At first, however, she is not convinced that anything special is occurring and tells him that she agreed to escape not to avoid punishment, which she fully deserves, but only to kill Vendice.
It is important to realise the situation in which the viewer finds him- or herself at this early stage in proceedings: Philippa has slain four innocent people, even if unintentionally, including two children. Tykwer is careful to spend time with them beforehand as they chat tenderly with their father; in the lift itself, they count the floors as they travel upwards. There can be no suggestion that Tykwer is minimalising the extent of what Philippa has wrought, or presenting an apologetic for it. She then goes on to kill Vendice, a man who could easily have been portrayed as the embodiment of evil but instead is given a scene in which he calls his partner to lament his being called away and hence arriving home to her late. Moreover, when Philippa shoots Vendice it is with Filippo's help, the latter holding the door closed to prevent Vendice avoiding his death. For the more observant, too, we can notice Philippa touching wood for luck on her way to plant the bomb and valuing her own life when she is almost knocked down at a road crossing even as she is about to take that of another. She also calls Vendice's receptionist to ensure no one other than her target is hurt, which demonstrates how calculating and considered her actions are.
What we find, then, is that both Philippa and Filippo are perhaps as far from our sympathies as they could be, and yet there is something wonderful about his unquestioning and immediate love for her in spite of everything that makes us curious about what will happen to them, or how matters can possibly be saved or put right. Tykwer hints at this in a typically Kieślowskian shot (recalling Delpy in the hotel room in White) when the two wake up together in their hiding place, staring into one another’s eyes in silence. It is easy to regard Filippo's behaviour as simplistic, or as a moral failure on his part to realise the magnitude of what she has done and that, straightforwardly, she should be brought to justice for it. Nothing was straightforward for Kieślowski, though, particularly moral issues. Where others had and have the confidence to pronounce on what should or should not be, Kieślowski explored the grey areas where easy answers were seldom (if ever) to be found. The question prompted for us – as viewers – to answer is: given these circumstances, complicated by Carabinieri corruption but where guilt is nevertheless clear-cut, can Philippa be saved?
Another aspect of life that Kieślowski was fascinated by is synchronicity, and often in his work lives that ostensibly were disconnected would meet and prove to be intimately related, the most detailed example being the mirroring of Joseph Kern's mistakes in August Brunner in Red, giving the latter the chance to choose differently and hence save the former. This theme of salvation not through grace or faith but rather the simplest of gestures runs through Kieślowski's oeuvre and we pick it up again in Heaven. The synchronicity involved in achieving this becomes apparent when Philippa and Filippo are on a train bound eventually for Montepulciano and she asks him his age. It turns out that their birthdays match, Filippo having come into the world at the moment when Philippa was receiving her first holy communion. We notice (if we have not already) that their clothing is identical, and begin to realise why Kieślowski had Philippa say to Filippo "I don't even know your name", as if there could be any doubt. When they visit the barber and together have their heads shaved, the implied is made concrete.
With the benefit of hindsight, Giovanni Ribisi was perhaps cast perfectly for the role of Filippo, his constant look of untroubled innocence founded on the certainty of love helping the viewer to suspend disbelief and realise that the congruence of these two lives in so many details is crucial to the exploration taking place before our eyes. Arriving at Montepulciano, Philippa remarks that "it's as if nothing ever happened" and we understand in a flash, as it were, that this line summarises events so far because of Filippo's intervention. When she meets her friend in the middle of the wedding celebrations going on around them, Philippa is slapped in the face and then hugged, forgiven in spite of what she has done. Likewise, Filippo's father meets with them covertly and embraces his son silently, forgiving him, too, as he comments – apparently proudly – "I do know you a little". Both have sinned, whether in the religious or moral sense, but are forgiven in an instant by people who love them.
Religious aspects were central to Kieślowski's work, particularly after his Decalogue series on the ten commandments. In the Montepulciano church, Philippa engages in what we recognise to be a confession (an impression Tykwer emphasises by opening the shot on the boxes themselves, curtains drawn as she speaks). Sat beside Filippo, she lays out her sins in detail and tells him that she has "ceased to believe in sense, justice and life". Head bowed, he hears her out before looking into her eyes and saying simply "I love you". Later, when Filippo’s father asks her if she loves his son, too, she begins to shake her head and tries to say no, wanting him to take Filippo with him and not allow her to drag him down with her needlessly, but she is unable to. Is it a coincidence, then, that Filippo – her saviour – was born on the day she entered the Church, only to hear her confession years later?
Given somewhere to stay for the night by her friend, the two venture out into the Tuscan sunset and there follows surely one of the most beautiful pieces of cinematography ever conceived. Shot from helicopter, Tykwer captures the two as they shed their clothes and embrace, silhouetted against the burning sky and symbolic of the angelic Filippo purifying his double. There is no music and no sound save the gentle rustling of the trees. The landscape becomes the canvas on which this individual act of redemption is painted. This, for Tykwer, is what we have witnessed: "somebody who is completely lost is taken out of the darkness and brought into the light".
Heaven opens with Filippo flying a simulated helicopter, apparently undertaking lessons. In a moment of difficulty he evades danger by taking the craft upwards, to the limit of the program. "In a real helicopter you can’t just keep flying higher", his teacher complains, to which he replies “how high can I fly?” This scene makes no sense at all throughout the movie until the very end: the Carabinieri descend on the farmhouse where the two had been sheltered, but they avoid them initially because they had spent the night on the hills under the stars. As a helicopter swoops and lands, they make their way back and stop at the fence, hands clasped together tightly. The attention of the Carabinieri is directed elsewhere and the pilot steps out, seemingly curious at the events unfolding in front of him. Filippo looks slowly at Philippa and asks her something: "now?" She nods, and they run to the helicopter, which Filippo pilots upwards. We watch from beneath as it rises higher and higher, the Carabinieri shooting in vain. The music stops and the shot lingers, the image becoming smaller and smaller until we can only see the sky into which it has faded.
At Montepulchiano, Filippo's father had posed a rhetorical question, frustrated at himself: "why can we never do anything at the important moments?" He did not realise that he had done everything possible, absolving his son in a moment just as Filippo would save Philippa and himself in the process. We see that the question has been posed and answered: can a person find salvation through love? Dostoevsky’s Raskolnikov was saved by Sonya, and the Russian master's work was a huge influence on Kieślowski, covering similar ground. Philippa and Filippo have found one another and found forgiveness, ending their journey by ascending to heaven.