Setting a film in the 19th Century makes it challenging to tap into issues facing the world today. However, highlighting inequality and framing it through metaphor can help drive home the author’s perspective in some cases. For Tea Lindeburg, her politics appear to be out in the open for everyone to see. However, this does not devalue her feature debut, As In Heaven. The poignant and necessary tale builds on the novel by Marie Bregendahl, infusing it with modern-day political commentary. Lindeburg crafts a tale that speaks across generations to highlight issues of systemic oppression.
For a young Lise (Flora Ofelia Hofmann Lindahl), her chance to escape a life on the farm is mere days away. Her mother has pushed her father to send her to school. A rarity for women in this era, Lise has been relegated to babysitter as her mother is days away from giving birth. When the baby arrives early, Lise loses control of her future. As she contemplates what tomorrow may bring, she confronts her missteps and her faith.
Lindeburg bathes the audience in a wave of dread early in the film and never lets that feeling subside. Opening shots feature blood raining from the sky, scary visions of ghosts, and the specter of death. Opening a film with red clouds and the specter of death certainly sets an atmosphere. The foreshadowing may be too on-the-nose, yet our protagonist tries to shove off the feelings that will grow to consume her.
To offset the darkness, Lindeburg wisely chooses to win you over to her protagonist’s perspective. Given our modern ideals, it is not difficult to see, even when her actions suggest a looser handle on right and wrong. At one point, the simple theft of one of her mother’s belongings feels like no big deal. However, as the tale progresses, this action finds itself the focal point of her thoughts.
Lindeburg’s visual aesthetics will draw comparisons to Malick and Dominick. Cinematographer Marcel Zyskind drives home these comparisons with wide vista shots, walks through the wheat field, and an ever-moving camera. The handheld tracking shots through a house create tension and fear and adds lively interactions between characters. Some inspiration seems to have come from A Hidden Life, if only to bring the community to life.
Questions about religion and conformity to cultural norms lurk in every sequence of the film. Lise’s mother begins to take a turn for the worse, leading to fights about when to call for a doctor. As Lise’s grandmother touts belief in God and maintaining the patient’s wishes, the midwife helplessly argues to listen to scientific reason. The parallels to our year-long health crisis are inescapable. Perhaps it is not the most delicate of metaphors. However, the point proves As In Heaven has grander ambitions than character melodrama.
As the film continues, the fight between science and faith begins to shapeshift. The real battle at the heart of the film lies in belief versus disinformation. The sources of disinformation may come from anywhere, including dreams and anecdotes. While something may have worked in the past, it also appears that freak luck has guided decision-making. A lack of knowledge, and the skills to combat it, have left Lise’s future in the balance.
As the complicated issues of As In heaven continue to change their shape, systemic oppression against women begins to rule over the narrative. As the morning began, Lise’s mother served as a defender and progressive fighter. Lise’s mother opened the door to a better world, and a mere education will take Lise to places her parents cannot imagine. As her mother’s fate lies in the balance, so does Lise’s future. Decades of oppression against women come flooding back into the frame and feel as relevant as ever given the last few weeks.
Once again, Lindeburg has modernized her period tale, making Lise’s future the source of much tension. In addition to the horror-inspired visuals that occasionally populate the screen, the soundscape adds extra intrigue. Massive gusts of wind feel like guidance, while the creaks of the floorboards feel like a straightjacket. At one point, a character lets out a scream so horrifying that your blood turns cold. The only thing more disturbing than this sound is the silence that follows.
While the film mostly captures your attention, As In Heaven stumbles at times with repetitive sequences that add little to the plot. The sameness of every day can feel like purgatory. However, this metaphor is both weak and exposes a pseudo-intellectual side to the film. While As In Heaven has some truly excellent moments, these overt metaphors harm the film’s success.