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TIFF 2021: As In Heaven is a divinely made hybrid of character study and nightmare

As in Heaven

Tea Lindeberg and star Flora Ofelia Hoffman Lindhal craft a stupendous study of a young woman’s struggle with her faith amidst horror.

Perhaps the best film at TIFF was one of the first made available to audiences. A hidden gem from Denmark, Tea Lindeberg’s As in Heaven spins a stupendous picture from a quiet premise. The story of a young girl from a devout Christian farming family in Denmark set to break generations of tradition by going to school instead of shackling herself to her family’s land, As in Heaven is as wrenching as it is extraordinary. It’s a bleak picture to be sure, but it’s a powerful look at the ways religion and tradition starkly contrast with a slowly but surely changing world.

Lise (Flora Ofelia Hoffman Lindhal) is an ethereal figure, bright and luminating with hope. That hope is quickly dashed by her father’s unhappiness – if not unwillingness – to send her to school. Moreover, Lise’s mother is about to have another child, growing their large family still further. Lise does housework and helps to entertain/wrangle her assorted younger siblings. She also has her eyes on a dashing tall young man who works on the farm named Jens Peter (Albert Rudbeck Lindhardt).

As in Heaven’s genre-blending filmmaking offers a bleak, compelling, blood-soaked version of a Bergman-esque religious parable.

But when Lise’s mother becomes sick during labor, As in Heaven’s coming of age drama gives way to something sinister and horrific. This isn’t a sudden jump scare of a tone shift—Lindeberg makes it clear early on that something terrifying is looming over all that happens in As in Heaven. Awful sounds and horrifying amounts of blood, all in haunting candlelight, begin to eat at Lise’s sleep.

The picture’s first sequence is stunning: Lise stands alone in a vast field of wheat and grass and trees as a monstrous cloud unleashes a rain of blood on the valley. As she looks up, her face starts to become coated with it. Lindeberg’s use of 16mm film makes the colors pop and the picture itself feel haunted.

It’s a bleak picture to be sure, but it’s a powerful look at the ways religion and tradition starkly contrast with a slowly but surely changing world.

The rest of As in Heaven is similarly beautiful, even amidst its dark and corrosive atmosphere. Cinematographer Marcel Zyskind, (Harmony Korine’s Mister Lonely and Angelina Jolie’s A Mighty Heart) uses 16mm to give the picture’s lighting beautiful tones. The look of the film becomes extremely important during its nighttime and horror sequences.

Religion is the heart of the film. For As in Heaven’s characters, every decision is based upon God’s will. Lindeberg turns this into a terrifying, heartbreaking prospect. Fate and hope collide to tear the family apart. For all of her conflict, Lise’s traditional upbringing forces her to bow to the whims of a God who she now questions. With its depiction of human faith tested to extreme, unforgiving limits, As in Heaven’s genre-blending filmmaking offers a bleak, compelling, blood-soaked version of a Bergman-esque religious parable.

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