Heaven, according to polls, is a place nearly everyone wants to go to, so why don't movies ever remotely capture that yearning? We all carry inchoate visions of heaven around in our heads, but we don't realize how bruising another's interpretation can be until we see it in celluloid. The most recent attempt—the heaven in Peter Jackson's The Lovely Bones—looks more like Barbie dropping acid and entering her playhouse. Our (deceased) teenage heroine, Susie Salmon, plays disco dress-up with her heavenly BFF. Platform shoes! Purple glitter! Meanwhile, the topography of her world is, in-explicably, constantly in flux—now it's forest, now it's ice. Spend two minutes in Jackson's interpretation of Susie's personal heaven and your teeth start to itch. I, for one, would rather be at the mall.
No wonder directors have such difficulty with heaven. It is, by tradition and in the popular imagination, a place of supernatural hyperbole. It represents what's most beautiful, most just, most perfect, most true. In heaven, the Book of Revelation promises, God "will wipe every tear…Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more." Throughout history, theologians and believers have argued over what heaven looks like. Is it a social place? Or a place where souls commune, alone, with God? Is it the realization of an individual's wishes? Or in heaven do individuality—and wishes—cease to exist? So unanswerable are these questions that heaven's perfection is perhaps better conveyed through metaphor or music—the poetry of Dante or Emily Dickinson or the oratorios of Bach.
The most successful heaven movies are those that explore only one aspect of the place. In his 1991 comedy Defending Your Life, Albert Brooks sends up heaven conventions (celestial robes—the tupas—that resemble hospital gowns), while asserting, profoundly, that the people most worthy of paradise are those who live on earth with maximum courage and love. Ghost (1990) takes on the idea, resonant at least since biblical times, that our beloved dead live near us and can hear our prayers.
For my money, the best heaven movie out there is After Life, directed in 1998 by the Japanese director Hirokazu -Kore-eda. A group of the recently dead arrive at a way station where counselors instruct them to choose their favorite memory from life, which in turn will become their eternity—sort of an infinite loop of one happy moment. Some make their choice easily and instantaneously. One man loves the way the breeze came through the open door of a city tram on a summer afternoon. An elderly woman remembers a childhood picnic. Those who have been lonely, mean, or unhappy in love, however, find the choice excruciating to the point of paralysis. Perfection, the movie says, comes to us in tiny, unexpected fragments. We who recognize and appreciate such moments are blessed indeed.