Reviewed in January 2003
Director: Tom Tykwer. Cast: Cate Blanchett, Giovanni Ribisi, Remo Girone, Stefania Rocca, Stefano Santospago, Alberto Di Stasio, Mattia Sbragia, Alessandro Sperduti, Giovanni Vettorazzo, Gianfranco Barra. Screenplay: Krzysztof Kieślowski and Krzysztof Piesiewicz.

25th Hour
Reviewed in January 2003
Director: Spike Lee. Cast: Edward Norton, Barry Pepper, Rosario Dawson, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Brian Cox, Anna Paquin, Tony Siragusa, Levani Outchaneichvili, Tony Devon. Screenplay: David Benioff (based on his novel).

Photo © 2002 Miramax Films
Tom Tykwer’s Heaven and Spike Lee’s 25th Hour are two films that you aren’t going to see if you don’t seek them out. Heaven, all the rage at last January’s Berlin Film Festival, was escorted to American shores by an uncharacteristically demure Miramax, a studio better known for shouting from the rooftops, even about swill like Chocolat and The Shipping News. Lee’s film, which lost a “The” from its title somewhere along the test-marketing path, is a higher profile release, and yet even this movie—a holiday offering crammed with award-magnet stars and helmed by a member of that dying breed, the celebrity director—won’t find its way into even 1,000 theaters, a conservative benchmark for a “wide” commercial distribution.

Disney, which owns Miramax, is also the studio behind 25th Hour, but a parent corporation and a low-flying ad campaign are not the only thing these films have in common. Heaven, written and filmed before the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, centers around Philippa Paccard, an Englishwoman living in Italy who vents her growing fury at corrupt bureaucracy and at the degeneration of social responsibility by bombing a skyscraper office in Turin. To be sure, it is highly unnerving for an American moviegoer (or any moviegoer) in 2002 to watch the cool equilibrium with which Philippa assembles and deposits her explosive device in the opening scene, and then to suffer the morbid shock of watching Philippa’s plans unravel after she has left the building, ultimately claiming four unintended casualties and missing her targeted victim entirely. Heaven has either the bad luck, the poor taste, or the uncommon bravery not just to tell a story about urban terrorism but to involve the viewer immediately in reflexive, morally explosive calculations of who deserved to die and who didn’t. Nothing in the film’s 97 minutes makes any apologies for Philippa, even when the film’s concerns seem to transform in the second half, when Philippa and an accomplice flee the scene of their crimes and embark on some strange inchoate sojourn in the countryside. Tykwer and his collaborators, inheriting their screenplay from the late Krzysztof Kieślowski, have fashioned Philippa not as a fanatic but as a desperate and sad citizen with confused ethical commitments and a roaming uncertainty about how (and by whom) she will be judged.

The same description could be applied to Monty Brogan, the convicted drug-dealer whose last 24 hours before an impending seven-year jail sentence constitutes the narrative frame of 25th Hour. If the gradual damage Monty wreaks on his clients were matched by real institutional power, he would be exactly the sort of person Philippa is trying to eliminate in Heaven. Given the choice, Monty might have preferred Philippa’s instantaneous brand of justice to the protracted wake that has become his life, consumed as it now is by the painful awkwardness of goodbyes to family and friends, by terrible premonitions of prison life, and by the incontrovertible knowledge that he deserves all of it—that he invited it, even if he was not initially conscious of doing so. But Monty, over the course of 25th Hour, seems to discover a unique if unenviable grace in accepting responsibility for his indiscretions. Neither he nor we can possibly deny that the bilious impulse to blame others for his fate is too easy a projection. In a strange way, Monty nearly over-gratifies this new appetite for punishment by the end of the film, inviting retributions that he may not require and which others beg not to perform. Acknowledging and negotiating guilt becomes one of the unifying themes of 25th Hour, spreading through the film like a quiet contagion. Monty’s imminent incarceration prompts all of the people around him into their own cycles of ethical scrutiny, both of others’ actions and of their own, until guilty disquiet and compulsive, mournful repentance all but permeate atmosphere of the movie, far beyond any strict contexts of given deeds and misdeeds. By the film’s conclusion, a key character will describe to Monty an elaborate, voluptuous dream of escape from justice and a second chance at freedom. By that point, though, 25th Hour has so richly evoked the epistemic gains of introspection and atonement that imaginary reprieves are less compelling than we might have expected.

Monty’s waiting game plays out against the backdrop of post-9/11 New York—sometimes literally, as in an immaculate dialogue scene between Monty’s oldest friends that is framed against a background of construction crews combing the rubble. The sounds, the images, the atmosphere of devastation hover around the characters, changing their everyday lives, and yet the specific crises, judgments, and tribulations that occupied them on Sept. 10th have hardly evaporated. Many reviewers have been tempted to read the city’s aching wound as analogical to Monty’s own, but it is just as crucial to Lee’s film that the individual’s pain is so emphatically miniature in comparison to the trauma around him. If the characters in David Benioff’s screenplay bear unmistakable allegorical traces to the cultural narrative of 9/11—a haunted firefighter, a tortured educator, an arrogant stockbroker, a fraught interracial romance—then, nonetheless, trying to fix the precise relationship between the immediate dramatic scenario and the implied social or historical referents is not an easy thing to do. This is not a narrative ŕ clef, where a secret decoder ring, once discovered, reveals the whole story as a loyal duplication of real events. Instead, Lee and Benioff tow a graceful affective line between art and life. It is as though 25th Hour’s plot is linked to recent history and to our communal psychologies by some cryptic form of emotional piano wire; a key is struck in the plot and our real-world memories reverberate with associations, echoes, amplifications. The affective claims of the film are enormous, even in its occasional missteps or overreachings; the hunger for moral clarity and for attenuated perception in the wake of disaster is so tangible throughout 25th Hour that even its lapses come across as part of the film’s fabric, and by those standards are eminently forgivable.

Heaven, beguiling as it is, was not for me possessed of quite the same power. Partly this is a result of its being a Tom Tykwer adaptation of a Krzysztof Kieślowski screenplay, and so it is doubly inevitable that spiritual meditation eventually glides into the borderlands of pure mumbo jumbo. Kieślowski’s disciples, Anthony Lane among them, have offered very compelling statements of why his movies go over so brilliantly with those moviegoers who revere him. I am not really one of them, and so it is more laborious to me than anything else that to get at what’s really moving in his films—even, as in this case, a film he wrote and conceptualized but didn’t live to direct—one must first crack through a bland shell of superficialities. Heaven was written to inaugurate a trilogy that would also comprise films called Hell and Purgatory, and albeit without the evidence of the subsequent creations, the implications of that conceit are among Heaven’s least interesting attributes—as affected and unrewarding as naming the two protagonists Philippa and Filippo.

Tykwer’s previous film, The Princess and the Warrior, ran into its own problems with ostentatious doubling and some overly precious filigreeing of an already fabulist narrative. But, given that they are essentially fables, neither Kieślowski’s nor Tykwer’s pictures can really be examined apart from their fanciful elements. What both filmmakers do rather expertly is to imbue narratives that could easily be dismissed as schematic, implausible, or weightlessly epicurean with a carefully managed lyric irreality that dares to position its narrative events as manifestations of destiny or theological riddles, even at the expense, when necessary, of plot momentum or appealing characterization. Developments throughout Heaven would flout the most liberal credibility and patience—nowhere more so than the final act, when both central characters have shaved their heads, adopted congruent dress, and scampered over Tuscan hillsides like the very Children of Nature—if the film were any less hypnotic in its images. As it is, everything in Heaven, from the urban grid of Turin as seen from the air to the limpid emotion of Cate Blanchett’s face, is photographed and edited as a majestic but elusive artifact. The moral provocation and sensual beauty of Heaven coincide, for example, in Blanchett’s close-ups, with the ironic result of emphasizing what we can’t see; here is this transfixing woman, filling the screen in exquisite light and focus, and we still remain powerless to detect why she did what she did. She likely doesn’t know herself. As in many Kieślowski movies, Heaven’s characters often act against their will, or more specifically, against their reason, following impulses they feel but don’t understand. The extravagant beauty of the film, and this again is true to Kieślowski, is affecting rather than gratuitous because of its constant, melancholic mismatch with the chaotic interior lives of the characters, who in their various exertions—as artists, as mercenaries, as guardians of the law—seek in vain to synchronize their lives with whatever cosmic plan they feel has been intimated to them.

Photo © 2002 Touchstone Pictures
Lee’s film is less exquisitely beautiful than Heaven but just as arresting, and from the standpoint of craft, he has delivered in 25th Hour one of his least compromised visions and one of his most palpably heartfelt portraits of a city he has always adored. Assisted by cinematographer of the moment Rodrigo Prieto, who memorably reflected the bruised soul of Detroit in 8 Mile, Lee mounts an even more evocative, panoramic collage of the various idioms of contemporary New York. Riverside promenades, trashy underpasses, old-money institutions, slick trading floors, Staten Island pubs, delirious Manhattan palladiums—they’re all here, faithfully captured in their respective energies, allures, and vulgarities. All of the actors, choreographed by Lee into his most impressive ensemble since Do the Right Thing, are working in the service both of Lee’s modernist vision of the city and of Benioff’s empathically realist scenario, and they do so to striking effect. Barry Pepper tears with fierce, well-calculated mannerism into the role of a money-loving hedonist, one who presumes a position of invulnerable judgment on almost everything, and is therefore all the more disarmed, even shattered, by Monty’s naked humility. Brian Cox, who thunders so enjoyably through a small role in Adaptation, is at least as memorable here in the quieter but deceptively formidable person of Monty Brogan’s retired father.

Shockingly, though after Red Dragon this marks the second occasion in one year, Edward Norton gives the film’s least inviting performances in the most central role. The layering and the deep intelligence characteristic of Norton’s work in American History X or The People vs. Larry Flynt has ebbed in the last year into a disconcertingly rigid posture from role to role; like Kevin Spacey, he seems to have begun adapting his parts into his own predictable retinue of gestures and inflections, rather than finding the distinct vocabulary for each character. It’s a trend that I hope will soon reverse itself. Meanwhile, Rosario Dawson and Anna Paquin are perhaps less polished perfomers than Norton, but at least neither of them seems to be recycling past efforts, and Dawson in particular finds an emotional timber that serves the material well. A moment near the end where she runs to fetch a bag of ice is perfectly played and executed.

Heaven and 25th Hour, one an elegy for a bomber, the other for a guilty survivor, would be a hard double-feature to sit through, but even worse would be missing them both—apparently the fate to which Disney’s distributors would consign us. A depressing but inevitable intuition arises that precisely those things which invigorate both films as art are the very traits which have sunk them as saleable commodities. The movies share an absolute refusal of quick moral judgment, a wonderful quality in itself, but also the even more remarkable discipline of refusing to suspend all moral judgment. Refusing to characterize Philippa or Monty as hissable villains does not render ambiguous that their actions have been unconscionable. Despite their notable stylistic and tonal disparities, Heaven and 25th Hour smartly sacrifice the temptations of moral policing in favor of challenging, rapturous depictions of a world where injury and immorality are widespread at every level: the personal, the national, the global, the spiritual. How one lives in such a world, and how fiercely one savors the dream of relief, are rendered with both beauty and sobriety. Tykwer’s movie occasionally loses that balance, literally ending with its head in the clouds, and Lee’s movie, too, may be accused of its own peripheral excesses. But in both cases, the excess is part and parcel of the plaintive sincerity with which talented filmmakers tackle heady themes and profound sorrows. If that’s a misstep, it’s one for which the cinema, or at least this moviegoer, has been thirsting for some time. Grades: Heaven: B; 25th Hour: A–

Awards for Heaven:
National Board of Review: Special Mention for Excellence in Filmmaking

Golden Globe Nominations for 25th Hour:
Best Original Score: Terence Blanchard

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