WHEN SOMEONE STEPS IN TO COMPLETE the unfinished work of a great, albeit deceased, popular artist, the result typically arrives on a wave of publicity about the living party's desire to extend the already immortal legacy of the dead one. It was done, we're told, because of a deep conviction that the world would be a much better place if it just had one more Jane Austen novel -- or Tupac Shakur album or Stanley Kubrick film -- in it. (If a couple of bucks are made along the way, so much the better.) Krzysztof Kieslowski is the latest to receive this treatment, in Heaven, a film directed by Tom Tykwer (Run Lola Run, Winter Sleepers) and based on a script that the visionary Polish filmmaker and his longtime collaborator Krzysztof Piesiewicz were developing when Kieslowski died in 1996. And in this case, the final product is so eccentric and resolutely uncommercial -- and so faithful to the spirit of Kieslowski's oeuvre -- that it's hard to doubt the purity of Tykwer's intentions.
While Kieslowski certainly earned his reputation as a filmmaker of ideas -- his masterpiece, the television miniseries Dekalog, tested the Ten Commandments, while his popular "Three Colors" trilogy (Blue, White and Red) did the same for liberté, égalité and fraternité -- his gift for creating compelling plots and fully developed characters always kept his work from seeming didactic. Heaven is no exception. Intended as part of a trilogy that would have been rounded out by Purgatory and Hell (Kieslowski reportedly told Miramax boss Harvey Weinstein that he wanted to set the latter in Los Angeles), it offers up a provocative investigation of the hot-button issue that dominates so many discussions of paradise: What are the criteria for admission?
Here, as in much of Kieslowski's work, the plot is grounded in a thorny moral conflict. In the opening scenes, Philippa Paccard (Cate Blanchett), an English schoolteacher living in Italy, plants a bomb in an office building and is subsequently arrested for the murder of four unintended victims, among them two young children. As the interrogation begins, we learn that her purpose was noble, if misguided: The bomb was intended to kill a drug lord posing as a legitimate businessman, whose dealings led to her husband's death by overdose as well as to the suicide of one of her students. The police scoff at this explanation -- they've been paid to do so by Philippa's intended victim and have destroyed evidence supporting her story -- and she's about to have the book thrown at her. Until, that is, the translator facilitating the interrogation, Filippo (Giovanni Ribisi) -- who believes her, sure, but who's also falling in love -- decides to take matters into his own hands.
What does all this have to do with the Great Beyond? Kieslowski's script proceeds from the fact that as society has come to prize material rewards over spiritual ones, the power to decide who may be blessed and who may be damned has been assumed by the state: The rule of law has taken the place of divine mandate. And indeed, certain legal questions in the film are rather like the angels-on-a-pinhead stumpers that confounded scholastic theologians. When the police inquire about Philippa's marital status, she replies, "I don't know." Because her husband died in the middle of divorce proceedings, the question evades simple resolution.
Like many of Kieslowski's religious analogies (e.g., Dekalog One: I Am the Lord Thy God's depiction of the personal computer as a latter-day Golden Calf), this may sound a bit much on paper, but it works like gangbusters in context. Tykwer, like the screenwriters, draws our attention to the emotional content of each scene, dramatizing the ideas that drive it instead of proclaiming them. In this regard, Ribisi's contribution to the film is significant. With his sunken eyes and sallow complexion, he's one of those terrific actors Hollywood just hasn't been able to figure out how to use -- he's played countless smalltime losers, and for a while (due to his roles in Garry Marshall's ghastly The Other Sister and Sam Raimi's The Gift, the latter opposite Blanchett) it seemed he might be doomed to a career as the industry's go-to guy for retarded characters. But beneath his colorless-functionary exterior Filippo is a man of deep convictions, and Ribisi seems liberated by the chance to play someone with a complex inner life. As a result, the gradual development of Filippo's conscience becomes one of Heaven's most intriguing threads. Meanwhile, Blanchett's reliable professionalism -- even in a role that requires much hand-wringing -- further prevents the rhetoric from drowning out the story.
DISMISSED BY SOME CRITICS AS A champion of style over substance (20 years from now, his movies will probably still be hyped as coming "from the director of Run Lola Run"), Tom Tykwer may not -- even despite his obsession, shared by his screenwriters, with the impact of chance and destiny on everyday life -- seem like the most logical choice of directors for an unfinished Kieslowski script. And although Heaven's first hour is as closely argued as any episode of Dekalog, the film nearly loses focus in its third act, when it begins to transform into the kind of couple-on-the-run thriller with which Tykwer has established his bona fides as a film-festival favorite. At this point, Heaven's discursive momentum takes a back seat to establishing Philippa and Filippo as a species of divine twins. Apart from the obvious similarity of their names (rather like those of Tamino and Pamina in The Magic Flute), this all starts out relatively subtly -- a shot of Blanchett sleeping is identical to an earlier one of Ribisi, for example -- before entering the realm of the thuddingly obvious when Philippa shaves her head so as to be indistinguishable, in medium shot, from Filippo. (We also learn that they were born on the same date, albeit seven years apart, with the archness of such parallels recalling Kieslowski's The Double Life of Veronique.) As the urban setting gives way to magisterial shots of the Italian countryside (which allow Tykwer to do for rolling fields what he did for snowswept landscapes in Winter Sleepers), dialogue is increasingly eschewed in favor of visual storytelling.
Still, the message remains discernible: Heaven has often been construed as a place for zealots and outcasts, the reward awaiting those whose faith sets them apart from the prevailing culture. Along with Philippa and Filippo's metamorphosis into figures from a Bosch painting, their appearance also suggests the uniform dress of modern-day members of a sacred cult. And although there's little in the way of explicitly Christian symbolism, Heaven -- in a manner that some will find unbearably pretentious, but which Tykwer executes with skill and sincerity -- manages to give his protagonists the kind of happy ending that, for a certain kind of religious imagination, is literally to die for.
HEAVEN | Directed by TOM TYKWER | Written by KRZYSZTOF KIESLOWSKI and KRZYSZTOF PIESIEWICZ | Released by Miramax | At the Grove, Laemmle's Monica 4-Plex
Get the Film & TV Newsletter
Stay up to date on the best new movies with our critics' latest reviews, interviews and trailers for the films coming to a theater near you each week.