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Heaven Before I Die
(1997)
 

Director: Izidore K. Musallam           
Cast:
Andy Velasquez, Giancarlo Giannini, Omar Sharif


"This is a personal story. The story of my life. I kindly ask you to keep it between you and me!" That's what's written on the screen and what the central character of Heaven Before I Die says at the beginning of the movie. But I'm going to disregard this, and tell you what happens in the next 90 minutes or so. That's because you need to know that Heaven Before I Die, despite a sweet tone and one first-rate performance, is simply a terrible movie, due to a very badly written screenplay and technical incompetence.

Even if the script was better, the movie would still be a very strange change of pace for its producers. The movie was financed by P.M. Entertainment, the made-for-video movie company that's made a name for itself with hard action movies like Executive Target, Ice, Last Man Standing, and Riot. There are clues that the company chose to distance itself from this particular project: The prominent "P.M." logo isn't at the beginning of the movie, and P.M. founders Joseph Merhi and Richard Pepin move their standard "executive producers" credits to the closing credits, when no one is watching. (Also, Pepin is credited here as "Rick Pepin".) Having watched the movie, it seems most likely P.M. distanced themselves more for the quality of the finished product than any fears a purported romantic comedy would alienate fans of their usual productions. At least it's a relief to know that in this case, taxpayers' dollars weren't used to finance this Canadian production.

Jacob (Velasquez) is a young Israeli who suffers from bad luck, most prominently concerning his feet, which stick out at the sides instead of straight out. To make matters worse, his love Nora has just told him that she's leaving the country. With no job, and no promising future, he wonders if his father was right in telling him his misfortune comes from God punishing his father for an incident before he was born.

One day, taking a walk outside the city, he comes across someone giving a speech about Canada, and what a wonderful country it is, and how anyone will be accepted there. Jacob, for the first time, sees hope - he could either get his legs fixed in Canada, or at the very least no one would care about his appearance. So he stows away on a ship heading to American, and then hitchhikes across the border to Toronto. After about thirty seconds of walking on the mean streets of savage Toronto, he bumps into a con artist/petty thief played by Giannini.

Giancarlo Giannini first became noticed in North America when the Lina Wertmuller-directed movies Swept Away...By An Unusual Destiny In The Blue Sea Of August and Seven Beauties hit North America in the early 1970s. The twenty plus years since then have changed him considerably; no longer playing sloppy, hairy, mean-spirited rogues, Giannini has now evolved into playing characters of a more gentle nature, including this role. I'm not sure why he accepted his role, though since the horror movie Mimic was filmed in Toronto around the same time, he might have stayed in the city longer to make a few extra bucks. Viewers accustomed to seeing him previously dubbed or subtitled will also be surprised how good his English pronunciation is. Giving a gentle performance that lights up the screen every time he appears, he does a lot more for the role than the role does for him, for his character is so murky, we don't understand things like if he takes Jacob into his home for compassionate reasons or to use him for his illegal activities. How badly written is Giannini's character? For starters, we don't learn his character's name until the end credits.

Jacob settles in Giannini's abode, and starts to wander around Toronto in vignette after vignette. These vignettes bring up a lot of questions, like why anyone would get arrested for walking with their feet at odd angles, or why the director would set his movie in Toronto but film in generic locations around the city that could have been filmed anywhere in North America. A number of these stories are garden-sheared edited so badly, they make no sense. Eventually, the screenplay starts to make some sense, with Jacob finding some purpose in his life and in his new home. His new girlfriend points out how amazing it is he already resembles Charlie Chaplin - all he needs is a hat, cane, and mustache. So Jacob and his girlfriend gather that material and a pig, and they start a street act called "Jacob and the Pig". Don't ask where they got the pig - or if the director saw any irony of a boy from Tel Aviv using something unkosher - or what actually happens in the act - I guess the director felt that a rock band singing the lyrics "Jacob And The Pig!" over and over and over on the soundtrack would cover up these holes. Naturally, Jacob becomes a smash hit in Toronto and the offers pour in. But will Jacob forget about his friends? Well, the director didn't seem to feel that a resolution of this issue was important either.

There is one scene that works. One night, Jacob comes homes to an uneasy Giannini, who earlier that day got a call from Jacob's family relating some terrible news. Giannini struggles to tell him, and manages to do so, getting a believable reaction from Jacob. But the emotion built up in this scene is ruined by the fact that this scene makes no real difference to subsequent events in the movie! The scene is just a device to artificially build some emotion. It made me angry, and I think other viewers will agree with me.

Omar Sharif is shown prominently on the video box, but he only appears for about three minutes near the end of the movie, as a pseudo-philosopher who is supposed to deliver a monologue of advice and a moral or two to Jacob. His speech makes absolutely no sense, and it says a lot about Sharif's charisma that the viewer is able to sit through this long stretch of babble.

The movie's final scenes will answer for many viewers a question that's been going on for more than thirty years: Why do Canadian movies typically do so badly with audiences? The answer is that Canadian filmmakers generally seem unable to make characters and situations an audience can identify with. Could you relate to a scene in some kind of club where everyone is pretending to be dead, while an unconvincing Leonard Cohen impersonator pretending to be Leonard Cohen sings to the "dead" the song, "Dance Me To The End Of Love"? Or a scene in a graveyard where a violin player comes out of nowhere, plays his violin, and then decides to chase the protagonist for no reason at all? I didn't think so.

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See also: Dance Or Die, For A Few Lousy Dollars, White Light

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