David Niven and Kim Hunter in A Matter Of Life And Death (1946).
Last March I began the E-Film Blog with a review of Peter Jackson's The Lovely Bones (2009), an adaptation of Alice Sebold's novel about a young girl who is murdered and goes to heaven. In that review I initiated a claim that no film based on the concept of heaven could be perfect, because it's such a divisive subject - what does it look like, if it exists at all? Creative freedom is assured, but so is an undeniable flaw - suspension of disbelief takes on different levels when applied to religious concepts. What this claim didn't take into account, however, was a case in which the specific depiction of heaven did meet a viewers criteria - and matched the image of heaven they had in their mind. I'm not saying that you have to be religious to appreciate films with heaven as a topic - but perception and engagement with the story must surely be tainted by ones beliefs? The reason The Lovely Bones didn't work for me (despite some initial praise) was because its depiction of heaven was fantastical as opposed to celestial - neither film actually acknowledges a God, but Jackson's unto-itself universe seemed more in-tune with The NeverEnding Story (Wolfgang Petersen, 1984) than a place of spiritual settlement. Put succinctly, Jackson may as well have labeled his vision Narnia, such was the non-implicative nature of that heaven, which upon subsequent viewings I would describe as cowardly. A Matter Of Life And Death, however, is a profoundly celestial vision - as proven in an unforgettable shot in which the camera pulls out of heaven's grand court and observes heaven sitting upon a bed of stars; a system much resembling the Milky Way. The heaven of this film exists within a definite universe - the opening even makes the boldly dry observation; "big, isn't it."
The artistic ambition and design of this Powell/Pressburger epic is what has ensured it's timelessness - as thematically brave and visually astonishing now as the day it was premiered, in the presence of King George VI and Queen Elizabeth, making it the first Royal Film Performance. Curiously, this heaven is shot in black and white and Earth in rich technicolour - one would think the obvious choice would be the other way around, to reflect the dullness of everyday life and the luxurious eternity and dreamlike beauty of heaven. Not so with Powell and Pressburger, who knew that love is the colour of life and in order for Peter (David Niven) and June's (Kim Hunter) relationship to have weight, Earth - and their life together - had to look like the more appealing prospect. It's also notable that not much of heaven is shown - just the waiting room and grand hall - and they are shot with structural similarities to Earth, with much of the framing based around character rather than location. One might even call it restrictive. It might be expected of the film to slavishly adorn it's celestial setting but there are no wide establishing shots, nor panning shots. It's not that heaven is unattractive - it's just a smaller, more formal place than one would expect - and not one that embraces passion.
The centerpiece of the film is the appeal for Peters life, and within that spectacle is a cunningly crafted debate on prejudice. As smartly scripted as that finale is, however, my favorite scene - a simple joke with no relevance to the plot - has much more to say on the matter. The first time we see heaven, Bob Trubshawe (Peter Coote) is waiting for Peter to arrive, certain that his friend must have bit the dust. While he's waiting, two pilots arrive, one French and one British. The French pilot rambles ecstatically, making great gestures. The Brit doesn't have a clue what he's saying but responds "oh, bad luck old boy." It's a simple joke, and an effective one, but it also has something deeper to say - that this heaven is non-judgmental and non-prejudicial toward other peoples and their faith. The Brit and the Frenchman likely share a different faith, yet they have been allowed into the same heaven. This is further explored in the grand court, where people of all races, religions and historical backgrounds are present. Whichever God or greater being is running this place, he/she seems pretty fair. The greater implication is, of course, one of good and evil. We're often told that if you're good you'll go to heaven and if you're bad you'll go to hell. What's fantastic is the heaven in A Matter Of Life And Death accepts all, universally - ones character is not deemed good or bad based upon their belief system. God, Allah, Krishna... it doesn't matter, because they're all the same thing. The greatest message of the film (apart from one of love)? Everybody is connected, and we're all equal. All that from a simple joke. No wonder Powell/Pressburger are so well regarded...