Locarno 2021 review: Heavens Above (Srdjan Dragojevic)

The spirit of Pier Paolo Pasolini informs Srdjan Dragojevic’s hilarious and thought-provoking Locarno competition title Heavens Above (Nebesa). Much like the films that make up the Italian master’s famed Trilogy of Life, Heavens Above brings together multiple short stories about religious miracles bestowed upon not-so-holy people, presented in a chaotic, earthy, and humorous package. The post-communist setting adds an unmistakable political subtext to all of the stories, but it is possible to have a good time with Dragojevic’s fast-paced, irreverent storytelling even without much prior knowledge of recent Eastern European history. This superbly crafted triptych could enjoy a healthy run on the festival circuit and at arthouses around the world.

The opening chapter titled “Sin,” the most energetic and satisfying section of the film, begins with a bizarre accident involving a light bulb and a genuinely good man named Stojan, who would make a great modern saint if he weren’t an atheist. The first of several absurd miracles in Heavens Above occurs when Stojan survives the accident with a permanent glowing halo floating above his head. This is both a blessing and a curse, as people around Stojan treat his new spiritual crown as an indicator of many things. Perhaps he has mysterious healing powers; perhaps he carries a dangerous virus. Unsettled by this turn of events, his wife Nada comes up with a questionable plan: Stojan needs to commit some sins and stop being so very good all the time! Stojan’s evolution into a crime machine reveals multiple sociopolitical ills including the hypocrisy of the church and the media, the poverty and material lack dealt with by ordinary people in the aftermath of communism, and the prejudice immigrant communities from Eastern Europe face on a daily basis. Despite such hefty themes, Heavens Above offers a breezy ride for a while, not taking itself too seriously even when some plot elements get quite thorny. With deliberately heightened performances, superb production design, and an endless flow of clever jokes, “Sin” has a distinctive carnivalesque quality.

Perhaps inevitably, Dragojevic cannot quite sustain this level throughout. As the film jumps from 1993 to 2001 in the second chapter named “Grace,” Stojan becomes a warden in a prison where Gojko, a mentally challenged murder suspect, awaits his execution. The frenetic pace slows down in this part as the film gets considerably darker, and it becomes more difficult to make sense of all the religious symbols Dragojevic packs into the story. This is a somewhat jarring shift in tone, with the humor giving way to grisly crimes, violent punishments, and cynical behavior. As Gojko is miraculously reincarnated, it becomes evident that the increasing darkness of the film is indicative of a broader human condition, specifically the inability of human beings to recognize and value the miracles around them. Religious intervention in Heavens Above gradually becomes a curse in a society that is too preoccupied with its own selfish, superficial interests. It is equally possible to see Stojan and Gojko as saints or as charlatans.

The slightly futuristic third part, set in 2026 and titled “The Golden Calf,” reunites Stojan with his wife Nada and his daughter Julija, who now runs an art gallery and discovers a series of ‘nutritious’ paintings, which magically satisfy the bodily needs of people who stare at them in a state nearing hypnosis. The artworks are painted by none other than Gojko, who can be considered as another embodiment of the ‘holy fool,’ not unlike Stojan in the way he is both blessed and burdened at the same time. The pristine brightness of this third section visually distinguishes “The Golden Calf” from the earlier stories, yet Dragojevic’s pitch-black social critique persists throughout, connecting this tonally diverse and somewhat uneven set of modern parables together. The filmmaking in this part gets increasingly grandiose, moving further away from the unpretentious and endearing hullabaloo of the first story, yet it is possible to find recurring thematic elements in each chapter. Perhaps the core of this ambitious dark comedy is Dragojevic’s interest in the foolishness of his characters, who keep proving themselves unworthy of miracles, no matter how profound or ridiculous those wonders may be.