In 19th century rural Denmark, Lise is a 14 year old girl on the cusp of what her time and place would consider womanhood. Her father thinks educating girls is a waste of time, but Lise’s mother Anna sees her intelligence and her need for more, and insists she be sent off to school, which means leaving the farm, her family, and her crush.
Anna, at the end of a difficult pregnancy, goes into labour. It is bad, immediately bad, but Anna refuses to call for a doctor. She had a dream wherein a doctor was called, and she died. Her mother-in-law, the stern and taciturn Old Sine, presides over the birth, guided by her own portents, prayers, and visions. The hours drag on as blood soaks through the mattress and Anna’s moans grow increasingly savage. Meanwhile, Lise tries to comfort her siblings as they cower together just out of sight. They wonder what will become of them should their mother die, and Lise, as the eldest, considers that this might be a punishment from God – and that Lise herself might be the cause.
Director Tea Lindeburg was drawn to the material because its themes felt alarmingly contemporary. Anna’s poor choices are made out of fear and ignorance – these are uneducated farmers, established enough to have options but superstitious enough not to use them. Today ignorance doesn’t have to be an excuse, the science is there, yet we still see misinformation and dogma offered as reasons not to follow doctor’s orders.
As In Heaven is thoughtfully created but slow to watch. As young Lise, Flora Ofelia Hofmann Lindahl contains multitudes and stirs empathy, particularly as she begins to doubt herself, and her motivations. Contemplating her mother’s death is awful for many reasons, but selfishly, Lise wonders if this will affect her ability to go to school. As a modern audience, we understand the consequences more keenly, aware that if she doesn’t go, the cycle of ignorance continues. As In Heaven shows us the personal cost of ignorance, but more importantly, it hints at the greater social costs as well.
As In Heaven is an official TIFF 2021 selection.