The irascible Austrian director Michael Haneke (The Piano Teacher, Funny Games) once claimed that famous actors like Juliette Binoche have no business in serious films unless they're playing movie stars. Haneke did just that when he cast Binoche in last year's Code Unknown, his minor-key meditation on globalization and its discontents.
The German filmmaker Tom Tykwer (The Princess and the Warrior and Run, Lola, Run) has no such compunction in Heaven, his latest film. Here, Cate Blanchett, an actress who carries Binoche's mantle of beauty and sophistication, plays a sleek and soulful ... terrorist.
Blanchett's bomber is motivated not by a hatred of imperial aggression, but by a far less controversial cause: rage at those who deal drugs to children at the school where she teaches in northern Italy. Her act of retribution goes horribly awry, and she's quickly arrested by the carabinieri. Since her Italian isn't the best, a young officer (Giovanni Ribisi) offers to translate during the interrogation. Of course, he falls in love, but who can blame him?
We don't believe any of this for a minute but one hopes that we are not intended to. The film is ridiculous in synopsis, and for some, it will stay that way after a viewing. However, the story is based on an unproduced script by the late Krzysztof Kieslowski, who is best known for his tri-colored trilogy Blue, White and Red. Like those films (the first of which starred Mme. Binoche) Heaven is a film that poses complex questions of guilt and redemption, and attempts to locate answers somewhere along the clean, elegant contours of beautiful women.
If Tykwer's film doesn't quite work either as political thriller or as metaphysical allegory, it's still worth seeing for its several felicitous qualities: the superbly edited and emotionally gripping opening scene; the world-weary religiosity of Arvo Pärt's score; and a gorgeous love scene in the Tuscan hills, late in the film.
And through it all, there's Cate Blanchett, who's always divine, even when she's setting off bombs in pretentious European films.