Monday, March 7, 2011

As it is in Heaven (Så som i himmelen) -- loving others, living life

Director: Kay Pollak, 2004. (PG-13) 

As it is in Heaven is a slow and sensitive movie that explores the power of music to change lives. Nominated for Best Foreign Picture (it lost to The Sea Inside), writer-director Pollack's film also has marvellous cinematography, of the cold and forlorn Swedish countryside, and a wonderful score.

It opens with a scene showing wheat billowing in the wind. In the fields a seven-year-old plays classical music on his violin. This serene setting is interrupted by a group of boys descending on the violinist and beating him up. The boy is Daniel Dareus (Michael Nyqvist, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo), a prodigy who grows up to be a successful international conductor.

We cut ahead to see Daniel grown-up, a man whose life is chock full of musical commitments for the next 10 years. He has no time to enjoy life, and his soul is filled with anger not love. When he collapses in the middle of a concert, his doctor diagnoses a worn-out heart. He needs rest. Finally, he puts his career aside and returns to his childhood village where he buys the old schoolhouse.

An early shot captures his renewed joy at finding liberty now that his restrictive schedule has been removed. Shoeless, he walks out into the snow, throws his arms up and allows the flakes to fall onto his face. This is a picture of the freedom we find in heaven, where we won't be controlled by fiercesome calendars that suck the life out of us. Further, when he sees a white rabbit in the snow, he takes a Polaroid picture. Here is the sheer wonder of being alive. Like stopping and smelling the roses, such small delights are more precious than a treasure-chest full of jewels.

When the local pastor, Stig (Niklas Falk), drops by to give him a Bible and welcome him, we think Stig is offering a gracious gift. But his motives are mixed. He wants Daniel to help with the choir. And we later discover Stig's inner nature. Daniel, though, wants nothing to do with him or his music. He desires isolation and separation. He simply wants to be left alone to listen . . . to his own music and his own thoughts.

It doesn't take long, however, before Daniel meets other villagers, like the pretty Lena (Frida Hallgren), the pushy business man Arne, and the abused Gabriella (Helen Sjoholm). And he does stop by to listen to the church choir. Eventually, he agrees to become the choir director. His unconventional approach draws some to him while pushing others away. But his love of music slowly becomes embraced by the choir.

As the choir members find their tone and their voice, under Daniel's direction, he begins to make friends and enemies. Music moves the people in the direction of positive change. It also acts as a vehicle to open their hearts to innate sin.

Bullying is one that emerges. Gabriella has been bullied and physically abused by her husband. Daniel was bullied as a child. And Arne continues to verbally abuse and bully Fatso, one of the other choir members. This bullying has a dramatic effect on each victim, isolating them from others and diminishing their self-esteem. It comes to a head in a powerful scene where Fatso has had enough. In tears, he lets decades of inner anger out, shocking the choir, but forcing them to see their tacit participation in this bullying by refusing to do anything about it.

This scene in particular forces us to question our tacit acceptance of abuse and bullying. When we see such sin and do nothing to stop it we are allowing it to happen. James the brother of Jesus put it this way, "If anyone, then, knows the good they ought to do and doesn’t do it, it is sin for them" (Jas. 4:17). We cannot stand around when we see others being picked on or bullied. We have an obligation to speak out and help the victim. We may, ourselves, be victims of this behavior, and we know the crushing effects it has first-hand. If so, we can find grace and strength in the person of Jesus to escape the grip of the bullier and experience freedom (Gal. 2:4).

Another sin that music exposes is that of hypocrisy (Lk. 12:1). As the pastor's wife, Ingrid, grows in her musical appreciation she finds years of repression falling away. Confronting her husband, they find consummation for a brief moment before his mask returns.

Pastor Stig is contrasted with Daniel. Despite being a "man of God", Stig is really a present-day Pharisee, being more concerned with the outward aspects of religiosity than with true inner conversion. That is clear in his interaction with liberated Ingrid. He does not embrace music or the music-giver. Daniel, on the other hand, is a Christ-like figure, despite his aversion to the faith. It is his sacrificial work and even suffering that provides the mechanism for the character growth of his choir.

Although this is a beautiful film with a heart-moving story, the theology is erroneous. Ingrid says to Stig that there is no such thing as sin and turns her back on the church as a "bully" of the people. This clearly contradicts Christian teaching. Sin is evident in the first book of the bible, Genesis chapter 3), and forms the undercurrent for the entire story, highlighting the very need for Jesus (Gen. 3:15). If there is no sin, there is no need for a Savior. In this case, we could ascend to God with our own effort. In effect, we could find positive change through music or our own particular method. But it is not true. Sin surrounds us, is in us (Rom. 7:23), even the best of us. "There is no one who does good, not even one." (Rom. 3:12)

Pastor Stig may be sinful. That is to be expected. But his self-righteousness and hypocrisy are an attack on most church leaders who toil away serving God in their parishes. Most know their innate sinfulness and depend on the grace of God to sustain them. Pollak's caricature does nothing to elevate the place of a much-needed grace-giving body. We must turn away from this portrayal, knowing it is wrong, even if some church leaders do live like this. It is not the norm.

Ultimately, the message of the movie centers on love and life. Daniel's childhood had caused him to become hard-hearted and loveless. The members of his choir taught him to love again. And in loving, he discovered a joy for living. Gabriella, in a stirring solo at a choir concert, sings lines composed by Daniel: "I want to feel that I have lived my life." These are both his words and hers.

Our lives are short and we desperately want them to count for something. By living to love -- others, God and ourselves (Lk. 10:27) -- we will make a difference. And in making a difference in this world, we will have a lived a life worthwhile.

From his youth Daniel wanted to write and play music that would open the hearts of others, and in losing himself and his successful career he found his life's goal completed. How about you? If you have not achieved your lifelong ambition, perhaps in losing your life you can find it afresh (Matt. 10:39) and learn to live and love. and make a positive difference.

Copyright ©2011, Martin Baggs

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