‘Heaven Will Wait’ (‘Le Ciel attendra’): Film Review

Heaven Will Wait -Still 2 - H 2016
Courtesy of TIFF
A real-world story that fails to ring true.

Writer-director Marie-Castille Mention-Schaar (‘Once in a Lifetime’) follows two French teenage girls who voluntarily join the ranks of radical Islam.

With the spate of terrorist attacks occurring in Paris and other French cities over the last few years, and with many of those attacks perpetrated by local residents, the recruitment of homegrown Jihadi fighters has recently become a popular subject on both the big and small screen. In films like Made in France, Les Cowboys, Road to Istanbul and the TV movie La Desintegration, filmmakers have tried to explore how young French men and women from all walks of life find themselves indoctrinated by radical Islam, leaving their families in ruin and occasional victims in their wake.

In the femme-centric drama Heaven Will Wait (Le Ciel Attendra), writer-director Marie-Castille Mention-Schaar doesn’t so much touch upon this hot-button topic as whack it over the head with a sledgehammer in a film that makes some salient points about why teenage girls could be drawn into the clutches of ISIS recruiters, but does so with little thematic depth or cinematic nuance. Still, it’s effective enough as a sort of middlebrow wake-up call that will definitely impact some viewers — especially parents wondering what their children are doing behind their bedroom doors. (The film’s answer: They’re praying to Mecca!) After a well-received theatrical release in France and stints at Locarno, Toronto and Tokyo, Heaven should see continued attention abroad, with Gaumont already racking up a string of sales in foreign lands.

Crosscutting between three storylines that come together in the final act, Mention-Schaar and co-writer Emilie Freche (The Jews) follow two young protagonists who experience the call to Jihad in mirroring narrative strands. On one side we follow Sonia (Noemie Merlant), a born-again Muslim arrested for trying to pull off an attack in France, after which she goes through a long detox process that slowly transforms her into the girl she once was. And on the other hand there’s Melanie (Naomi Amarger), a studious cello player who meets a recruiter online and gradually falls into his clutches. (There’s a third strand involving a mother (Clotilde Courau) suffering from the absence of her daughter, with the director deliberately holding back key information despite the obvious connection she has to one of the main characters.)

While there is a documentary-style approach to certain sequences — particularly those involving therapy sessions led by real-life indoctrination expert Dounia Bouzar — the way that Mention-Schaar dramatizes these young girls’ lives often comes across as grossly deliberate and borderline ridiculous. In one scene, the highly susceptible Melanie sends texts to her Muslim “prince,” as she calls the unseen Islamist recruiter, while her teacher reads aloud an anti-religious diatribe by Guy de Maupassant. And in a series of over-the-top domestic spats, Sonia, who is on house arrest and at the mercy of her helpless parents (Sandrine Bonnaire, Zinedine Soualem), is seen going through severe Jihadi withdrawal, murmuring prayers, wandering about comatose, turning her sheet into a headscarf, screaming, crying, clutching at the walls and cursing. It feels like at any second, her head will do a 360 like Linda Blair’s in The Exorcist

Mention-Schaar may be the least subtle French filmmaker currently working in this semi-art house vein, relying primarily on close-ups because she has no real sense of staging, and capturing ripped-from-the-headlines tales in ways that both jolt and comfort the audience. (Her last film, the breakout hit Once in a Lifetime, dealt with banlieue kids learning important lessons from the Holocaust, including a scene where they hear the horror stories of an actual survivor.) As a concerned citizen, she deserves credit for tackling subjects that are constantly in the news and on everyone’s mind, but as a helmer her faux-realist methods seem inherently flawed, substituting easy narrative clichés — in this case, different lives thrown together, then reconciled, by the evil doings of ISIS — for something more ambiguous and provocative.

Certainly, there’s truth to be found in the kind of events depicted in Heaven Will Wait, with reports stating that over the last five or so years, thousands of young French adults have fled their homes to join radical Islamic forces fighting in Syria and elsewhere. But transforming such events into credible fiction is another matter, and despite hard-hitting performances — especially from leads Merlant and Amarger, who throw themselves full-throttle into difficult roles — the filmmakers ultimately turn a deeply complex phenomenon into what feels like a gratifying movie-of-the-week.

Production companies: Willow Films, UGS Images, France 2 Cinema
Cast: Noemie Merlant, Naomi Amarger, Sandrine Bonnaire, Clotilde Courau, Zinedine Soualem, Dounia Bouzar
Director-producer: Marie-Castille Mention-Schaar
Screenwriters: Marie-Castille Mention-Schaar, Emilie Freche
Executive producer: Philippe Saal
Director of photography: Myriam Vinocour
Production designer: Valerie Faynot
Costume designer: Virginie Alba
Editor: Benoit Quinon
Casting directors: Marie France Michel, Christophe Istier
Sales: Gaumont

In French

Not rated, 104 minutes