Heaven begins with assorted ascents. A student pilot practices on a virtual helicopter, asking his instructor, “How high can I fly?” Philippa (Cate Blanchett) enters a Torino office building, goes up in the elevator, and deposits a homemade bomb in a trashcan. Once she’s descended again, she stops at a payphone to call the secretary away from her desk on a pretense, then the carabinieri, to inform them of the explosion, now seconds away. What Philippa cannot know is that a janitor has picked up the trash and now gotten on one of those elevators that crawls up the building’s side, with a man and his two young daughters. The explosion kills them: you see only the closed doors vibrate and crack, but you know their bodies are flying into the suddenly fiery air.
Minutes later, armed officers burst into Philippa’s apartment and drag her down to headquarters. Interrogators call her a terrorist and demand to know her affiliation. Unaware what has happened, she is horrified to learn that she killed innocents: she crumbles and faints. When she comes to, she insists — in English translated by novice policeman Filippo (Giovanni Ribisi) — that her target was one wealthy businessman, Vendice (Stefano Santospago), who sells drugs, in particular to her recently overdosed husband and dead children at the school where she teaches English. Her interrogators see her as a terrorist. Filippo falls in love with her and helps her escape.
Weird, startling, and heartbreaking, Heaven combines the interests and sensibilities of two remarkable filmmakers. Written by the late Krzysztof Kieslowski (with Krzysztof Piesiewicz), and intended as part of a trilogy (Heaven, Hell, and Purgatory), it explores accident and fate, guilt and grief, time and truth. These themes also interest the expansive and provocative director Tom Tykwer, whose earlier films, Run Lola Run (1999) and The Princess and the Warrior (2001), consider desire and need, fear and audacity, individuals in perpetual search of companionship and hope for a future that might only be imagined, all through the trope of “lovers on the run.”
Heaven breathes delicate new life into all of these ideas, in Tykwer’s peculiarly deliberate fashion. Philippa and Filippo quickly come to understand their uncanny, poetic connections, realized in the film’s precise rhythms and magnificent compositions (shot by Tykwer’s usual cinematographer Frank Griebe). More metaphorical than literal, the couple’s journey includes Philippa’s completion of her self-assigned task (her frankly brutal and unnerving murder of Vendice), followed by a series of adventures in the Tuscan countryside. When Philippa wonders at changes in Filippo’s plan, he assures her that his father, also a carabinieri, taught him, “At the right moment, you have to do what nobody expects.”
Their moments together are at once excruciatingly poignant and weighted with expectation of a seemingly inevitable end. They ride out of carabinieri headquarters in the back of the morning milk truck, then must wait while the driver engages in a brief sexual tryst in the front seat. Barely daring to breathe or look at one another, they sit, hunched up, frozen. In an apparent effort to disguise themselves, they get their heads shaved, which leaves them looking remarkably alike: pale, liquid-eyed, achingly thin. This mirroring, however, also marks their difference: her passion and desperation, his dedication and commitment, come together as if to make them whole.
Given that their coming together begins with his translating her words for his superiors (and an exchange of notes and audiotapes before the escape), it’s at once fitting and ironic that they actually say very little to one another once they begin their flight. “Heaven is about silence,” Tykwer tells The New York Times. “But all the silences have ten layers” (6 October 2002). Some of these layers are buried under loud noise — the unbearably hurtful explosion at film’s beginning, the cop car sirens, the whirring choppers that seek them out, even the joyful wedding party they accidentally come across, where Philippa recognizes a startled friend, who grants the couple a few hours of respite in her family’s barn.
The silence comes in such few moments of respite: they eat a simple meal in the barn, they spend fleet minutes in a church. Here, Philippa is moved to confess, not her sin, as she is all too aware of this, but her loss of faith. Her eyes wide and wet, she tells Filippo that she has “ceased to believe, in sense, in justice, in life.” No matter. He accepts her fully, her pain, her grief, her despair and her aspiration, the mournfulness and passion in her that he recognizes (or imagines) in himself. She looks back on him, and sees herself reflected as well, the self so generous and hopeful that she wishes she might be.
And so, their relationship embodies another kind of “belief,” a shared destiny simultaneously transcendent and absolutely grounded in immediate circumstances. The questions emerging in their trajectory — toward capture? toward flight? — are unanswerable and increasingly abstract. If justice is impossible (for no sort of revenge or violence can achieve it), then what? Are systems of faith only ineffectual distractions, designed to allow daily life to continue? Will Philippa’s punishment offer resolution or redemption? With such questions, Heaven only complicates the moral and political implications of terrorism, murder, and state penal and judicial systems.
Alongside such intangibles, the pain and ecstasy revealed in Blanchett and Ribisi’s equally luminous performances are surprisingly corporeal, for all their silences and for all their layers. And that’s what makes the film resonate, in the end. Its lyrical excesses and haunting visuals enhance the lovers’ stunning pallor, even as the film pulls away from conventional “realism” and “motivation.” In a world as damaged as theirs (ours), Philippa and Filippo can forgive, if not themselves, then one another. Gorgeous and imperfect, their yearning — for escape, for rapture, for the simultaneous loss and discovery of self — is palpable.