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Heretical Devotion: "Heaven" and Its Script

Tom Tykwer's adaptation of Krzysztof Kieślowski's unfinished final screenplay thinks about its own history.
MUBI is showing Tom Tykwer's Heaven (2002) in the United States from September 17 - October 16, 2016.
Heaven floated around for a while. Krzysztofs Kieślowski and Piesiewicz were collaborating on the first screenplay of a planned trilogy riffing on the Divine Comedy when Kieślowski died. His long-time writing partner finished the triptych, though it's impossible to know how accurately 2002's Heaven presents the last word from the Polish poet of deviant religiosity. (Danis Tanović adapted Hell in 2005 as the almost totally unseen L’enfer, and Purgatory remains unproduced.) Tom Tykwer might have seemed a curious replacement. At the time, he was still most famous for 1998's techno-myth Run Lola Run, a film stripped to the core but narratively dizzying enough to introduce college first-years to foreign film. However, that film clearly displayed an affinity with Kieślowski's crocheted social networks over which the director played divinity.
However, Tykwer followed Lola’s elemental morality play with 2000’s modernized fairy tale The Princess and the Warrior, on a trajectory toward a formal preoccupation with archetypes treated as particulars. Heaven is a sort of purification of that project, a tightly-observed fable suffused with Christian iconography. With Heaven, Tywker for the first time has a certain responsibility to outside texts—not only Catholic history or the history of Italy, where the story is set, but someone else’s script. But befitting the film’s writers, Tykwer plays coy with all of it. Instead of a schematic parable, Heaven begins as a thriller without a mystery.
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The Italian police force has three main bodies: the civilian Polizia di Stato and the military Arma dei Carabinieri have jurisdiction over civil law enforcement, while the Guardia di Finanza—military like the Carabinieri—focuses on financial crimes. The Carabinieri actually predates Italy by 47 years; it was founded in the Piedmont region by the King of Sardinia in 1814. In 1861, as the Risorgimento wound down, the national Parliament appointed the Carabinieri as the “First Force” of the newly unified Kingdom of Italy. Their patron saint is the Virgo Fidelis and their first area of jurisdiction was Turin. In 1933, they adopted the motto Nei secoli fedele: “Faithful through the centuries.”
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While Heaven’s opening credits are still rolling, the British-born, Turin-based grade school teacher Philippa (Cate Blanchett, uncomfortably intimate as ever) confesses to a bombing before the bomb has even gone off. When the Carabinieri interrogates her, she immediately confesses again when she learns that the bomb missed its target and instead killed four bystanders. She’s accused of working for a terrorist organization that plans to undermine the state, but for her this was strictly extrajudicial justice: she planned to kill a drug lord who was pumping narcotics into her school. With these revelations, the film seems like it has nowhere to go until a young Carabiniere, Filippo (Giovanni Ribisi, finding two dozen distinct ways to have no expression), determines to help her escape.
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The first hour is a minor miracle of genre filmmaking. Moving between surveilling long lenses, purposeful close-ups, and tightly choreographed movements (both of the camera and the actors), Tykwer builds the entire structure of a straight procedural in order to break it down in the final third. As Philippa defends her mission but regrets its collateral, Filippo plans. The modular problem-solving recalls films by David Fincher and Brian De Palma, but Ribisi turns spiking a drink and grinding makeshift keys into devotional labor. With his blank mien, Filippo is the holy fool as Bressonian zealot. He knows what to do but not precisely why to do it. Frank Griebe, Tykwer’s favored cinematographer, lights the accomplices with guileless clarity.
While Filippo sends instructions to Philippa via tape recorder, a corrupt Carabiniere intercepts the recordings. As she listens in her cell, the layers of recording become vertiginous: Filippo’s into the player, then the Carabiniere’s onto a reel-to-reel deck, and then further into digital waveforms on a computer (and then once more, to us). However, the tools of surveillance are inherently corrupt recorders: the information the Carabiniere gleans turns out to be incorrect. He was not close enough to the source.
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The Italian word for “to remember” is ricordare, as in Ti ricordi di me? (Do you remember me?) This shares a source with the English “to record”: the Latin recordārī, “call to mind.” The root of this word is cord-, from cor, “heart.” So when Philippa says Ti ricordi di me? while pointing a gun, she asks, “Can you call me back to your heart?” She later misinterprets a custodian who said (in Italian), “I will never forget that face. It will haunt me for the rest of my life” as saying that, “She’ll remember it for the rest of her life.” Philippa’s mistranslation becomes an ethical claim about memory and feeling—to Philippa, the custodian carries collateral damage within her, rather than without, as a haunting.
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It’s probably no spoiler to say that Philippa and Filippo find themselves on the run in rural Tuscany. They rest in the Duomo of Montepulciano, or the Cathedral of Santa Maria Assunta. In the establishing shot, tucked into the corner of the frame, is Taddeo di Bartolo’s triptych Assumption of the Virgin. In a pew, Philippa confesses her despair. In the course of a single oscillating close-up, the light empties from the church, leaving her in an abyss. In the reverse shot, votive candles burn in bokeh behind Filippo, who makes his own confession.
They leave and disguise themselves, looking like inductees into a syncretic cult of Franciscan anarchism. They move to San Biagio, a church built on a pieve originally dedicated to Mary, and later to St. Blaise.
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Heaven is a record of circumvention: of the law, of society, of history itself. The film was always going to be measured against Kieślowski’s vision that will never have existed. Whether by design or chance, the film reflects on this responsibility to scripture. It’s filled with unstable mediations, translated language and garbled data, icons in the distance. Tykwer is almost flirtatious about religion, foregrounding secular transcendence (There are three cues for "Spiegel im Spiegel," but let’s give Tykwer credit for getting to Pärt back in '97.) but teasing the deep, devout history of pre-modern Italy. The script is an allegory of an allegory, and the film itself reaches back toward pre-biblical religious love. It imagines scripture as a corollary to purified devotion rather than its vehicle. As Philippa and Filippo’s fugitive status becomes existential, dialogue gives way to silent accords—a lovers-on-the-run film recast with cenobites. They are after an origin, a moment before instruction or heritage. They deny law and to find a heaven decoupled from recorded doctrine, which always fails to record the particularities of experience. By turns, Philippa embodies Mary, Eve, a terrorist, a mendicant—more figures than allegory can capture. Tykwer’s ambivalence toward ministerial emblems is a form of modesty, a fig leaf for heresy: Philippa and Filippo are a vision of childless ascendants, lovers in a Virgin landscape. They are given an Assumption without Annunciation, and a heart without record.
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