Eye For Film >> Movies >> As In Heaven, So On Earth (2020) Film Review
As In Heaven, So On Earth
Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode
There are three ways in which religious horror exerts its power over cinema audiences. The first is where it touches on the pre-existing supernatural beliefs of audience members, evoking fears often present since early childhood. The second pertains to the way religion can inspire people to act irrationally as a group rather than adhering to their usual standards of behaviour as individuals. The third concerns the vast weight of religious institutions across time and space, which gives them – or secretive groups of their adherents – the power to act on a massive scale. It’s this latter trait that underscores the horror in Francesco Erba’s brilliantly inventive feature début – and the film needs that weighty core because in terms of narrative it seems poised to fly off in any number of directions.
There are three timelines. One is set in the present day (this film screened at Frightfest 2021) and provides some context for the other two, following a naïf citizen journalist who interviews a trouble researcher and a police investigator who does not expect to live. Another concerns the disappearance of two teenagers in 2011 and the mysterious appearance of an unknown, traumatised woman at around the same time. The remaining one is set in 1275 and tells the story of a group of monks inhabiting an abbey where an alchemist conducts experiments on the offspring of an imprisoned girl and a young amanuensis longs to save her. These parts fit together to form a larger tale, but you will need to be paying attention if you are to grasp it.
To help us keep track of what belongs where, Erba makes use of different cinematic techniques. The Medieval story is told entirely through puppetry. It’s simple enough in form (though there’s some beautiful detail in the alchemist’s lab) but the amount of emotion the director manages to convey with felt figures is impressive. The 2011 story is presented as two pieces of found footage, one caught on a dashcam, the other ostensibly filmed by the ill-fated teenagers and subsequently by a camera mounted on the back of their dog (who has a puppet stand-in for the action sequences who manages to convey a great deal of cuteness even though we only see the top of his head). The present day scenes are more conventionally shot, though we do also see some footage apparently recorded by securing cameras in the psychiatric unit where the mysterious woman is kept.
All these different sections are well worked out and woven together with consummate skill. The result is a film unlike anything else you’ll see this year. It’s complicated by questions around just how much credence we should give to the storytellers, and despite the light touch it employs in places, there is of course the shadow of real conspiracy behind it. It acts as a reminder that people have been trying to blow the whistle on real abuses within religious institutions for centuries – and that, where they have been unable to take a more direct route, they have often used fiction and art to encode their concerns.
The Medieval characters here barely speak. The modern ones don’t stop. Older words, preserved at great cost, have more value. Video tells an obscure tale and to get to the truth we have to do some digging.Reviewed on: 30 Aug 2021