Sur La Terre Comme Au Ciel [On Earth As In Heaven] (Nathalie Saint Pierre, 2023) Canada

Reviewed by Sebastian Muniz-Massa. Reviewed at the 2024 Santa Barbara International Film Festival.

On Earth as in Heaven (2024), directed by Nathalie Saint Pierre is a gripping glimpse into true ideological and existential conflict. The film  was originally written by Marika Lhoumaeu and later developed further by Natalie Saint-Pierre over a span of five years. After the film’s showing at the Santa Barbara international film festival the film’s director, also Nathalie Saint-Pierre, detailed the process of making the film and having a hand in every part of its production. Lhoumaeu first wrote this story from personal family experience and then presented Saint-Pierre with the story. She then elevated the story to encompass more of the complexities of religious indoctrination and created the dynamic between sisters that really drove home the narrative.  Saint-Pierre who wrote, directed and produced the film described the difficulties of independent filmmaking and the hurdles she faced to fill virtually every role for, On Earth as in Heaven. However, as difficult as it was for her to wear so many hats she also told the audience of the freedom it gave her to truly bring her specific vision to fruition. Her dedication certainly showed up on the big screen.

With amazing performances by Lou Thompson as Clara Gagnon, and Edith Cochrane as her aunt Louise, we explore a world of first as Clara escapes a group of religious extremists in search of her sister, Sarah. Clara has been completely shielded from the modern world and therefore is able to understand the outside world as she searches through the city of Montreal. Her journeys take her through the highs and lows of life; her ability to authentically live and commune with her individuality causes her to question the restrictive beliefs she was taught her entire life. Throughout the story Clara hyper fixates on the task at hand and shields herself from the foreign world she finds herself in, but after spending time with her aunt Louise she is exposed to the beauty of the unknown. Louise’s personal philosophy allows Clara to understand that she has the power of self determination and the opportunity to explore differing perspectives. We see through the film’s use of costumes and set design, a liberation of idea’s and confidence. Clara learns to accept her body and her personality while the walls and limitations she grew up with come crashing down. The dynamic built up through the narrative arch in Clara’s relationship to her Aunt Lou, allows us the audience to experience firsts along side Clara as she is exposed to both the good and bad of the real world. The film’s dedication to realism and true human emotion makes us this film so intriguing and worthwhile.

This is a depiction of self exploration and a young woman’s introduction to what it means to live, rather than to sit around and wait for impending death. This Melodrama is a character study on the internal conflict surrounding religious ideology and personal authenticity, and is told beautifully through a cinematic landscape. I was able to ask Saint Pierre what went into certain decisions for framing or editing that made it such a personable story. She talked about her dedication to character above all, stating “I focus my attention on the character, as a director you have to learn what you prioritize and do that. Whether it’s the cinematography, or the lighting, or writing: for me I am always trying to develop who the character is”. And she did, succeeding in painting a protagonist so easily relatable but so much her own entity as well, as we watch her discover who she is we can’t help but feel that Clara carries a piece of all of us. The pacing of the film allows the audience to sit with her emotion whether it be good or bad, because we are reminded that both are a part of life. Clara comes to the realization that though things may get difficult and that she can and will experience betrayal and heartache, she will also experience the joys of connection and self confidence. Clara reminds us that our complex lives are worth living rather than just sitting idly by while the world moves around us. This is done through nuanced editing, beautiful cinematography, and comprehensive character development. At the beginning of the Q&A Saint-Pierre made a connection to Poor Things (2023) directed by Yorgos Lanthimo and I must say I see the parallels between Clara and the main character in Poor Things, Bella Baxter. Both are women exploring a world for the first time, both escape the indoctrination of male dominated society, and both learn to empower themselves in the face of hardship. I myself prefer the grounding realism of On Earth as in Heaven.

Nathalie Saint-Pierre’s dedication to realism in telling this story creates a unique experience. One that audiences can relate to more closely and fully as we can see ourselves as Clara in a world we know all too well. The fully realized depth of Clara’s character is impossible not to root for, as she explores different possibilities and learns to question her restrictive religious upbringing. The relatability is accentuated by the actors who brought Clara and Louise to life. This film has been by far the been one of the best I have had the pleasure of seeing and the Santa Barbara International Film Festival, reminding me of the beauty between the extremes of human existence.

About this entry