Breaking Free: Escape as a Theme in HEAVEN
8 May 2011
Written by Krzysztof Kieslowski and Krzysztof Piesiewicz, one of the major themes explored in Tom Tykwer‘s film Heaven is escape vs. captivity. The plot starts off as a thriller, with Philippa (Cate Blanchett), a British woman teaching English in Turin, Italy who’s desperate for justice regarding the murder of her husband. With a bomb in her bag and a feeling the police have failed her, she walks into an office building where the man responsible for her husband’s death works. Although she stealthily places the bomb in the wastebasket of the man’s office, a member of the cleaning staff removes the wastebasket just seconds before the bomb detonates. The explosion kills four innocent people, but leaves Philippa’s target unscathed.
When captured by police for this act or terrorism, Philippa is in a room full of men, one of which is a particularly young man, Filippo (Giovanni Ribisi). During questioning, Philippa learns of the unforeseen casualties and instantly becomes overwhelmed with grief; she is also told her target lives, which complicates her emotional state. Contributing to this complexity, Filippo develops strong feelings for Philippa over the course of the investigation and devises a plan to help her escape incarceration, which she agrees to.
After Philippa’s escape from prison, the film itself escapes, taking a turn away from the thriller genre and toward a more experimental, philosophical direction. It becomes clearer during this shift Heaven is not about characters put into situations they must physically escape from; in part, Heaven is about characters who are intentionally seeking an escape from life as they know it. And, only through the film’s distance from the thriller genre can the audience begin to understand the escape these two characters seek is much more profound and gripping.
Although both characters come to their desires for escape in the different ways, escape is a driving force for both Philippa and Filippo. Looking at key scenes from beginning to end helps show how vital and complex escape is in Heaven.
First, the film opens with Filippo’s desire for escape in the form of his flight simulation training. In and of itself, flying is a form of escape; gravity is resisted and the bounds of earth broken. Filippo heightens his desire for escape by soaring higher than he should in the simulated experience. Although his instructor warns him in an actual flight his altitude would be harmful, Filippo does not seem concerned. He calmly poses the question (to the audience, not the flight instructor), “How high can I fly?” before the scene cuts. This question is never answered.
Later in the film, Filippo helps Philippa escape to an attic in the prison. This particular attic is familiar to Filippo because he used to run away as a child, for days at a time, and in this secret spot. It is initially difficult to understand why a person would risk their career and their freedom to help a stranger who admittedly bombed a public office with the intent to kill. However, his efforts to help Philippa make it easier for audience understand how Filippo operates. To Filippo, escape is everything; to be confined, in any capacity, is unlivable. Furthermore, in a film that becomes incredibly sparse on details and explanations, Filippo’s revelation that he ran away as a child seems to confirm how desperate he is and always has been to escape. The desire for escape is
something Filippo has felt for his entire life.
Philippa, too, is driven by escape; however, it is less inherent in her and more an acquired motivation she gained though the loss of her husband and the circumstances surrounding his death. Once in the attic, Philippa reveals to Filippo she only agreed to escape imprisonment so she could kill the man responsible for her husband’s death. However, she declares she does not want to escape punishment because she wants to “answer for” the four people she recklessly murdered at the start of the film. However, after killing her target, Philippa does not give herself up to the police. Instead, she and Filippo leave the attic for the Italian countryside. This move signals to the audience that Philippa is operating on a different value system than the police; Philippa chooses not to escape punishment, but punishment beyond what the police can give her.
Filippo and Philippa’s departure from Turin is a turning point in the film. In part, when the pair leaves Turin the audience begins to understand the type of escape these two are seeking. As soon as they arrive in the countryside they begin to shed themselves of society, convention, materialism, etiquette, and culture. Filippo and Philippa’s attempt to revert back to unadulterated, primal humanity. In fact, for a brief moment, they succeed. In a scene toward the end, the two run toward a tree standing atop a hill overlooking beautiful Italian landscape. They never speak; they are no longer bound by communication through language. They remove all their clothes and the audience can assume the two make love. The camera cuts away as they embrace and picks back up with them lying naked in the grass, completely one with Nature. In this act, the two have escaped; they are completely free.
Unfortunately, helicopters begin to swarm overheard searching for the two and both Filippo and Philippa realize their escape has fleeted and would be impossible to accomplish again. Their reversion back to a more primal and simple existence does not have a place in the world; therefore Philippa and Filippo do not have a place in this word.
In the final moment of the film Filippo and Philippa hijack a helicopter and ascend up in the sky in a deeply affecting and bold shot. This shot is emotive because, cinematically, is reverses the repeated motif of aerial shots; where once the camera always hovered over Filippo and Philippa, now they have escaped its confining
presence. In opposition to all the aerial shots, this last shot, which looks straight up from the ground at the rapidly climbing helicopter, captures Filippo and Philippa’s definitive escape.