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By Mariko McDonald | July 14, 2004

Although it aspires to magical whimsy, the second film from the director of “Tuvalu” is instead mired in convention and predictability. Whereas “Tuvalu” was inventive and daring, “Gate to Heaven” is instead a mishmash of romantic cliches, which although not without charm, does nothing to distinguish itself from its American counterparts.

The film starts off promisingly enough as we are introduced to the way things are for illegal immigrants living under the Frankfurt airport. Basically slave labor for a crooked staffer, these refugees are offered forged documents and a real chance at a new life in exchange for a year’s work. Into this environment comes Alexei (Valeri Nikolayev), a former officer in the Russian army who refused to take part in the “cleansing” in Chetchnia and as a result has been a fugitive ever since. Alexei takes the deal although he has no intension of staying the full year, until he meets beautiful cleaning girl Nisha (Masumi Makhija). It’s love at first sight for Nisha too who spends her evenings playing dress up in her assortment of stolen flight attendant uniforms on planes she sneaks into. But how can it work out, and what of Nisha’s son still in India? Don’t worry folks, it has a nice happy ending and even Udo Kier helps them out.

Helmer’s first real problem was in choosing such a dark locale to situate the proceedings. Although the light tone was obviously meant as a ray of hope, the fact that there are many people living in situations very similar and they don’t have Bollywood musical sequences to brighten their days. This may seem like a real nitpick because after all, it is only a movie, but the predictability of conflicts and misunderstandings that drives the plot fail to give the viewer anything substantial to ponder.

The international casting was a nice touch and they are very attractive but they don’t seem to have the dramatic chops to make it work. Maybe it could be because it is all in English, but the performances lack the emotional depth necessary to make such a sudsy story work.

The best moments in the film are those not tied to the main plot, but following the seemingly unrelated adventures of an African shaman as he escapes the prison with the help of some enchanted goats. If more of the love story had borrowed even a little of the joyful absurdity these moments carry it would have gone a long way to making it more compelling.

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