Some films I come to love are sleepers. You hear nothing about them except by word of mouth or by sheer accident. Such is the 2004 Swedish film, As It Is in Heaven, written and directed by Kay Pollak. Nominated for “Best Foreign Language Film” at the 77th Academy Awards in 2005 As It Is in Heaven is both romantic and funny yet provides a critical, and fair, look at religion and the tendency to be dour and joyless in the faith.
The lead role features actor Michael Nyqvist as Daniel Daréus. He is a successful and renowned international conductor who burns his life out through perfectionism. Through it all Daniel’s life aspiration is to create music that will open people's hearts. (This is indeed the real theme of the movie to the end!) His own heart, however, is in bad shape, both physically and emotionally/spiritually. After suffering a heart attack on stage at the end of a performance, he shocks his fans and the press by returning to Norrland, his childhood home in the far north of Sweden. As you learn early in the film it was here, in this tiny remote village, that young Daniel endured a terrible time of bullying that still haunts him.
Daniel buys the old elementary school in the village for his new home. When the locals realize who he is they invite him to listen to the church choir. Immediately the choir seeks to persuade Daniel to help them. He reluctantly agrees to assist them for a time but struggles to adjust his expectations and tame his relentless perfectionism. The minister offers him the position of choir master and Daniel accepts. The choir grows, through hard work and and a lot of real fun, and Daniel rediscovers his own lost joy for music from the soul.
Before long Daniel notices Lena, a young attractive woman in the choir. As they grow closer and fall in love, he begins to fall into the vortex of one problem after another in his new role with the church choir. The pastors wife is in the choir and soon discovers more about herself and her marriage than she bargained for. Her husband, a respected leader in the community, is the self-righteous personification of legalism and joyless Christianity. Another member of the choir accuses Daniel of moral impropriety, with no grounds to substantiate her charge in the least. She is totally obsessed over morality to the degree that she breaks down in anger and rage. Another man in the choir obsesses over tiny mistakes while not realizing that he is making bigger mistakes himself. Still another character is a mentally handicapped young man who insists on joining the choir to the consternation of a few. Another choir member is beaten and abused by her husband who turns out to be the same bully who tortured Daniel as a young boy at the school house Daniel now calls his home. The choir is accepted into the annual "Let the Peoples Sing" competition and travels to Austria to perform. On the day of their performance the choir is ready to sing on the stage but Daniel is nowhere to be seen. Meanwhile, Daniel's heart is affected by his anxiety and he suffers another heart attack. The film ends with Daniel smiling to himself in utter happiness over reaching his goal. The concluding scene shows Daniel rushing towards his younger self as he embraces his life's goal, to "create music that will open a person's heart.” He has finally reached his real goal in life!
Warning: this film has two scenes of brief nudity and a few words that are coarse language but neither is out of context to the story. This film focuses beautifully on the universal need for love and shows us how life can lived in in a way that opens the heart to dream and create. As I said at the beginning this was a “sleeper film” for me. I discovered it in my public library and intended to watch it in several sittings but once I began it was such a great story I could not stop watching and stayed up just a bit too late one evening. I found As It Is in Heaven to be a humane and deeply respectful story of faith lived in joy. The minister is much too like some I have known; self-righteous, joyless and sexually confused. He is driven to be loved but completely in love with only one person, himself.
As It Is in Heaven was very successful in Australia, New Zealand, Germany, Sweden and the Netherlands. I doubt most American film goers have the patience for such a wonderfully scripted story that is in Swedish with English sub-titles. Too bad, this is a delightful film. One of the few English sections of the film is the choir singing Amazing Grace.