Invariably there will be those who will question the eventual choice of German Tom Tykwer ("Run Lola Run," "The Princess and the Warrior") to take the reins of "Heaven," though after seeing the film it's hard to imagine anyone still harboring reservations. Set in the Italian city of Turin, "Heaven" is vintage Kieslowski--a movie that operates on so many levels one almost needs a mental elevator to keep track of the nuances. The surface narrative centers on an English schoolteacher named Philippa Paccard (Cate Blanchett) who, in an act of desperation following her husband's death from a drug overdose, attempts to bomb the offices of the Italian businessman and drug smuggler she holds responsible. But the plan goes tragically awry, taking the lives of three innocents instead and landing the guilt-stricken Philippa is in the custody of police who believe her to be incorporated with a more devious terrorist organization. Only one officer takes her at her word--the young translator Filippo (Giovanni Ribisi), an awkward idealist who has followed his father into the force without any overriding devotion to law enforcement of his own. His is a life of duty, routine and subservience of self until he gazes into the seraphic face of Philippa, a fallen angel desperately in need of rescue and redemption.
What follows is part romance and part thriller--not usually the kind of fusion one would expect of Kieslowski or Piesiewicz--as Filippo orchestrates and then joins Philippa's flight from both sin and punishment.
While Tykwer might not have been the most obvious choice to tackle "Heaven," he was clearly the right choice. Deciphering Kieslowski's subtext has always been one of the great pleasures of his work, as much for the profundity of the result as for the puzzle-like intertwining of theme and narrative. While Tykwer is by no means as cryptic in his own work, he clearly understands the importance of such storytelling in a picture like "Heaven." Replete with symbolism and ominous religious parallelism, "Heaven" is wise to never manifest itself as such until its closing frames, challenging viewers to immediately reevaluate everything they have just seen. It's a stunning instance of a director being able to adapt himself to another director's material without subverting his own instincts in the process--exactly the kind of triumph that last year's "A.I. Artificial Intelligence" failed to deliver.
A more obvious point of commonality with Kieslowski is Tykwer's skill with actors, marvelously on display here with both Blanchett and Ribisi. And while audiences have come to anticipate this type of excellence with Blanchett, it's clearly not something anyone expected of Ribisi. With passion in his eyes and a forceful, determined gait, Ribisi displays a side in this bilingual performance that threatens to entirely redefine his persona and vault him into the elite strata of young A-list character actors like Philip Seymour Hoffman and Edward Norton.
Still, for all the picture's sublime brilliance and subtle craftsmanship, it would be a mistake to overestimate the commercial potential of such an endeavor. Kieslowski, for all his international acclaim, was never anything but an art-house celebrity--a filmmaker whose name was all but unrecognizable in the U.S. until little more than a year before his death. If "Heaven" is to enjoy any kind of mainstream crossover appeal, it will have to do so on its own merits and not on the backs of its esteemed authors. Starring Cate Blanchett and Giovanni Ribisi. Directed by Tom Tykwer. Written by Krzysztof Kieslowski and Krzysztof Piesiewicz. Produced by Stefan Arndt, Frédérique Dumas-Zajdela and Maria Köpf. A Miramax release. Drama/Thriller. English and Italian-language; subtitled. Rated R for a scene of sexuality. Running time: 97 min