As In Heaven

As In Heaven, So On Earth (2020)

As In Heaven, So On Earth had its UK première at FrighFest 2021

“It was a mess. We kept finding pieces of evidence, putting them together, but we couldn’t find the right order.” So says Leonardo Constantini (Paolo Ricci), chief inspector of the Viterbo Police Department, in a secretive interview that he is conducting on camera in 2013 with the unseen (but very much heard) investigative reporter Francesco (Daniele Di Matteo), some way into writer/director Francesco Erba’s feature debut As In Heaven, So On Earth (Come in cielo, così in Terra). The film’s title is an expression that goes back to Hermeticism, the Emerald Tablet, occultism and alchemy, and is used to suggest a correspondence between the spiritual and the material. Erba’s film also presents the viewer with a dizzying range of materials and media. For like Leonardo, like Francesco, like the forensic archaeologist Rebecca (Carlotta Rondana) and like a young flagellant monk and amanuensis from the thirteenth century, we too are being challenged to investigate and interpret a hidden truth, finding our way through the mess of evidence – and we will soon realise that the different, complicated accounts which these characters give of their findings are all essentially the same repeating, self-perpetuating story, echoing through the ages and radiating from a mountaintop monastery. As above, so below. 

  Panicky and paranoid, Leonardo is trying to communicate to Francesco an investigation with a very complicated timeline, such that he is struggling even to say where it began or at what point he became a part of it – even though he seems pretty sure that his own time is about to come to an end. Everything that Leonardo is saying, Francesco is in turn imparting, in another interview two years later, to Rebecca (who is in hiding). All this connects to some phone video left behind by a pair of missing local teens (Federico Cesari, Sara Paudano), to much older skeletons found near an abbey’s ruins as a result of that filmed evidence, and to a bloody manuscript, found buried not so much with as in a skeleton, that has its own tale to tell. Accordingly As In Heaven, So On Earth is a variant of the ‘found footage’ format, with (almost) all its modern video purportedly compiled from Francesco’s camera, or a smartphone’s SD drive, or hospital CCTVs, or a vehicle’s internal and external cameras, or police bodycams, or even a camera attached to an ill-fated pet dog. 

Meanwhile the content of the found manuscript (from the early medieval period) is presented episodically through stop-motion animation and puppetry – a colourful yet sombre tale of hypermaternal abductees, macabre alchemical experiments, unholy resurrections and inversions of the Madonna and Child. As the viewer is required to synthesise all these disparate, multi-media materials, all shown out of chronological order, into a coherent, interconnected narrative of age-old mysteries, sinister conspiracies and clerical cover-ups, there is the sense that this entire quest for fugitive, perhaps deadly meaning is an exercise in hermeneutics and semiology, where story-telling and interpretation are themselves the real objects, as in an Umberto Eco novel. For like Eco’s The Name of the Rose (Il nome della rosa, 1980), which was also set in and around an early medieval Italian monastery, Erba’s film concerns texts that can get you killed. It also presents itself and its own reception as something that endangers the viewer  – just another story, collated and handed on, of the never-ending conflict between miracle and monstrosity, between saint and devil, between equally immortal motherhood and patriarchy, and between those who record, expose and transmit secrets, and those who forever seek to bury them.

strap: Francesco Erba’s multi-media ‘found footage’ mystery conflates timelines to (re)tell an endless story of alchemy and conspiracy

© Anton Bitel