The Discovery of Heaven Review
Directed in 2001 by Jeroen Krabbé, who's more famous as an actor starring previously in films such as Ocean's Twelve, The Fugitive and The Living Daylights, and adapted from novel of the same name by Dutch best selling author Harry Mulisch, Discovery of Heaven is a little gem in the European film market and certainly something that little bit different to the usual Hollywood fodder.
Again is rests upon Eureka's broad shoulders, taking up the mantle and allowing the general public to experience these films, films which perhaps may have fallen by the wayside if this production company didn't make the effort not only to keep them alive and in the marketplace but also to raise awareness of their catalogue so that others can take advantage of what they have stored up in there.
Mankind is on the cusp of a new revolution, one in which he not only controls his future destiny with advances in medical science but also discovering the whereabouts of heaven itself. Astronomers, one in particular Max (Greg Wise), are on the verge of locating it's very existence in the heavens. God is obviously annoyed and decides to cut all links, leaving humanity to the evils of Satan he wants to revoke the covenant he first gave to Moses. He wishes the return of the “Word of God”, the stone tablets.
An Angel has been tasked with this mission, and he in turn manipulates history to ensure a boy is born on Earth whose sole task is the recovery of the original stone tablets. This manipulation takes decades, involves two world wars, numerous deaths, the forging of a three way friendship and heartbreak eternal.
Although I have not read the original text my research shows that this is a faithful adaptation of the book and one which was more or less welcomed when it was transferred to the big screen back in 2001. Without reading the novel it can come across in one of two ways, depending on your viewing perception at the time. One of utter pretentiousness or one of a thoughtful work examining not only God's relationship to those beings he supposedly created but also the relationships which man himself creates for himself down here on Earth. I took the latter approach and found this to be an engaging and entertaining piece of work; it does demand attention though and it can easily be seen where those in the former camp are coming from. However let your mind follow the escapism offered here and I think you'll be rewarded for your perseverance.
There are many religious clues on offer within this work, the fact that the two main protagonists Max and Onno (Stephen Fry) are both 33 years old when they meet, the apparent age of Christ when he died. The three way relationship between them both and Ada, the three cities which Max's father grew up in (the centre of which was Auschwitz) and the three religious symbols on the necklace purchased by Ada all of course referring back to the Holy Trinity. If Mulisch and then Krabbé were in fact recognising the existence and or will of God is for the viewer to decide but there's no doubt about it that religion is poked at on more than a couple of occassions. Onno's walking stick for instance when inadvertently left at the scene of a Holy shrine becomes mistaken as the return of the staff of Moses and all the world's Christian followers bow down before it in reverence. Heaven's depiction is somewhat different also, not the all clean and white, bright Angels sitting on clouds plucking harps... no. Here they reside in a medieval, gothic world almost inspired by Dante himself and the fact they have to manipulate history to the degree where millions are killed in order for their wish to be fulfilled makes the viewer ask if this is indeed a God one would call saviour and friend. As I say though, this is for the viewer themselves to decide upon such is the very personal nature of religious belief itself.
The story itself progresses along nicely enough with the viewer constantly bemused as to where the film will turn next. From Heaven, the student revolts in Amsterdam in the late 60s, Cuba after the revolution, characters killed off without prior notice and ultimately how the tablets would be found and returned. This by no way turns into some lame Indiana Jones type affair though and is more a look at the relationships that we build up between ourselves. The relationships between friends, the relationships between lovers and the relationships between family, father and son. This was the most I took from this film, the fact that heaven is actually here on this Earth and we have to make the most of it whilst we are here. Not to do so leaves us with regret as so many of the characters here experience for themselves, they do not take the opportunities which are presented to them and in the end for some it is too late when they realise what they have missed.
The acting is excellent with sterling performances from all three main players; Max the continual flir, Ada the virgin led astray to the degree where she does not know who the father of her child might be. However it is Stephen Fry who should have most applause. He's not the best of actors in my own opinion and not someone who would immediately carry a film. This is his best work by far though from the intellectual snobbery of his political beginnings to the fraught frail, broken man he ultimately becomes. As Fry is Fry he does manage the odd sarcastic remark but it's never really out of place and fitting with the snobbery of his initial character.
Direction is adequate is lacking in a few areas, but Krabbé keeps the story moving along well and as mentioned above seems to pull the best from his actors. I feel though that this is a testament to their abilities rather than his ability as a mover and shaker. He stars himself in the film as one of God archangels, if not the archangel, Gabriel himself and he's more than adequate in this jobbing role. The story though mostly propels itself, is kept on a pretty much even keel and never really wanders too far to the ludicrous that your disbelief is tested too much. It is the story which compels the viewer to keep on going until they find the answers to the numerous questions raised in this film.
This is not going to be everyone's cup of tea that much is more than sure but for those of you who wish a break from the hustle and bustle of the latest Hollywood offerings then I can certainly recommend this film. It's a personal affair from start to finish and for me anyway a most enjoyable one.