Saturday, March 8, 2014

As It is in Heaven (2004)

Director: Kay Pollak                                        Writers: Kay & Carin Pollak
Film Score: Stefan Nilsson                              Cinematography: Harald Gunnar Paalgard
Starring: Michael Nyqvist, Frida Hallgren, Helen Sjöholm and Lennart Jähkel

This Swedish production initially seems to work the same area as the Australian film Shine, but this fictional story heads in a much different direction. As It is in Heaven is the story of a brilliant classical musician and conductor who tries to hide from the world but soon discovers he can’t hide who he really is. Like the Australian film, it was also nominated for an Academy Award for best foreign film. The major difference between this film and Shine, however, is that it doesn’t linger on the childhood trauma of its protagonist. He is show being beaten up in a wheat field by other kids in his school, then jumps to the day as a teenager when his mother is hit by a car and killed. From there Michael Nyqvist is shown directing an orchestra with blood dripping down on his score, oblivious to his pain and passing out as soon as he walks off the stage. His agent has him booked out for the next eight years, but when he turns out to have had a heart attack and his doctor tells him his weakened heart could give out at any moment, he gives up his career and moves back to the small village he grew up in to get away from everything.

Nyqvist buys the old schoolhouse that he attended as a boy and before long everyone in the village has become his new best friend. The pastor, Niklas Falk, brings him a bible and suggests he puts on concerts, but Nyqvist says no. The owner of a local store, Lennart Jähkel, suggests he come by to hear the local choir, which he does, but immediately regrets it when they clearly want him to lend a hand and he runs back home. Inevitably he has a run in with one of the kids who beat him up as a child, Per Morberg who is, no surprise to anyone, a wife beater now. It’s not until he listens to a tape made by the beautiful grocery store clerk, Frida Hallgren, that he decides he needs to do something. So he goes to Falk and tells him he wants to be cantor of the church. The group of misfits that constitute the choir suddenly becomes his instrument, something he needs in his life. But they are an unwieldy bunch and it takes all his nerves to bring them together as one.

What he actually ends up doing, however, is breaking them apart. The congealed mass that they had become, stuck in their small village, behaving the same way, thinking hidden thoughts and never expressing them, begins to thaw like the long winter’s snow. And what had held people together previously begins to break down as they become their own individuals with the power to lend their voices voluntarily to something greater. The preacher’s wife shouts down her husband’s talk of guilt and condemns the church. The mentally challenged boy is invited into the choir as an equal member, the abused wife leaves her husband and, most importantly, Nyqvist finds love with the beautiful Hallgren. But, as things do in life, matters are not simplified by this regeneration but become more complicated. For one, Nyqvist knows his heart could give out at any moment and leave Hallgren alone, which he is reluctant to do. It’s one of many threads that the film must come to grips with by the end, though it’s decidedly not a Hollywood ending.

While the film was nominated for an Oscar in the foreign language category, it lost out to another true story in the Spanish film The Sea Inside. However, that was nothing compared to the odd showing at Sweden’s Guldbagge Awards where it was nominated in every single category and yet failed to win a single award. Writer-director Kay Pollak has had a lengthy career in films, starting in the seventies, but made only five films in his career. This one was co-written with his wife Carin. It has a distinctive style that is quite good. The film proper, after the childhood prologue, is set in the dead of winter and takes place over the course of a hundred and eighty four days. There is a bit of the Dead Poets Society as Nyqvist becomes the inspiration for the entire village. Michael Nyqvist is most well known for the trilogy of Dragon Tattoo films from Sweden based on the best selling novels by the late Stieg Larsson. An international success, As It is in Heaven is an inspiration and sure to please lovers of foreign films as well as those who believe in the healing power of music.

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