As It Is In Heaven

Review by © Jane Freebury

It’s hard not to think of the figure of Ingmar Bergman towering over Swedish cinema still, especially when you see a configuration of figures set in a stark, white landscape. Nor can I imagine a good Swedish movie without a peak into the bedroom with some of that inimitable Scandinavian frankness. As It Is In Heaven has these traits and more, and some spellbinding moments that underline the redeeming and empowering qualities of song.

Finding that he can no longer make sense of his life, a famous conductor returns to his roots in a township in the northernmost reaches of Sweden. Daniel Daréus (Michael Nyqvist) seems to have banished everything from his life, even his music, though it quickly reasserts itself when he takes over the local choir.

He buys the vacant schoolhouse and moves in. It’s a building crowded with childhood memories though devoid of course of material comforts. And though he could buy himself a battered Volvo he opts for a bicycle instead—but he will have to learn how to ride it first. Raw experience is the order of the day.

Occasionally the camera pulls back to observe him scuttling through the snow with an armful of firewood, or revelling in the solitude he has created for himself inside the Folkskol. If his actions are a touch eccentric, they seem quite endearing alongside the behaviour of several of the local menfolk who like shooting hares for sport or getting blind drunk.

The local pastor drops in on the celebrated stranger, sniffing out a potential recruit for his dwindling congregation, but it is Arne (Lennart Jahkel) who runs the local choir and is someone who can always scent a winner when he’s on to one, has better luck. Daniel agrees to listen to their rehearsal, and though he leaves in embarrassment, he eventually comes back and asks for the job of cantor.

Then Daniel’s unconventional methods are viewed with suspicion as husbands become jealous of their wives’ passion for a newfound form of expression. Singing brings out long suppressed feelings in everyone really, a mood that turns into a challenge to the status quo in a community where the Lutheran religion has a firm hold.

The transcendant power of choral music has been demonstrated beautifully in movies as different as Paradise Road and the recent French film The Chorus, and there are some glorious moments here too.

When this Academy Award best foreign film nominee came out in 2004, it was the first film Kay Pollak had directed in eighteen years. He may only occasionally take up filmmaking, but he has drawn touching and natural performances from his cast. The rhythms of ordinary life he has created are also very satisfying.

It appears that the title of the film is a fragment of a line in the Lord’s Prayer. The repressive and punitive aspects of religion certainly get a serve here, but the joyful community practices that affirm its humanity are celebrated.

4 stars