The first part in what is bound to be a difficult if powerful trilogy to sit through, Ulrich Seidl’s Paradise: Love patiently and subtly unfurls as a stark critique on colonialism and the formative effects it perpetuates. Filled with lots of casual nudity of pallid middle-aged, often over-weight Austrian women on holiday in Kenya seeking to enjoy young, dark, virile native men, the film has a raw human quality that is as visceral as it is shameful in its critique of a society that has neglected its responsibilities for its decimation of indigenous culture. What makes the film both so hard to watch and important to experience is its flagrant shaming of an ignorant middle class culture implicated in its ravenous apathy to consume, as it perpetuates its dominance in a capitalist world ruled by money and class systems. Seidl is Pasolini with a conscience.
The drama of Paradise: Love unfolds patiently and gradually reveals a humanism to all its characters that resonates beyond the film in the grand scheme of things. The most outstanding shots are Seidl’s brilliantly composed wide shots. They recall Wes Anderson in their busy quality and the dimension they add to characters. However, the tone could not be more different. The vintage wear and irony is transformed from precious to critical. There is humor, melancholy and grim undertones in the image of the rotund Teresa (a casually fearless Margarete Tiesel) reclining in her hotel bed in sheer, unmatched underwear below a painting of a primitively drawn leopard hanging out on a tree branch. Mosquito net curtains frame each side; the walls and tile floor, exude a history in their grimy white color.
When Teresa arrives to the resort hotel on a white bus labeled “Comfort Safari” after driving past a shanty-like town, she is greeted to a modest row of four African women in zebra-print wrap dresses singing a song in their language with the refrain “Hakuna Matata,” with the accent on the last syllable. It stands out in contrast to the children’s ditty from Disney’s the Lion King, which emphasized the first syllable of the last word. In fact, the phrase, which translates to “no problem” (the once long-standing slogan to entice tourists to Jamaica) appears constantly in the film. By extension, beyond the critique of post-colonial apathy, the film implicates Disney for its co-opting of culture into a cartoonish commodity constantly marketed to the most vulnerable to commercialism: children.
It’s casual consumers eating up culture via corporations like Disney presenting experiences, that this film is targeting. That’s not to say people who buy tickets to Disney movies and theme parks or its toys, clothes, games and books are indecent people. They only want to have fun. Early in the film we meet Teresa as a woman who seems stuck in a rut but rather resigned to her position and status. She chaperons a large group of mentally disabled to a day at a fair and has a teenager who would rather live on her cellphone screen than care for the state of her room. Seidl quickly sets his grandiose ironic tone, lingering for long takes on the contorted faces of the mal-developed adults in bumper cars. The sounds of their squeals and grunts echo in the ride and dominate the soundtrack. There is no music. If it’s uncomfortable, it is so by design and implication.
Teresa then struggles to get her overweight daughter out of her room plastered in posters of teen idols. She drops her at a relative’s house, and takes a selfie of the trio outside the home. She waves bye-bye, and she’s off to an adventure as a “sugar mama” to the locals in Kenya. She’s a rather insignificant person who treats people with a resigned decency than most are capable of, which adds to the gradually revealed and utterly horrific behavior toward the indigenous people of Kenya who work at the resort and stand on the other side of a short fence made of ropes on the beach or ride in circles on scooters on the other side of the resort’s guard gates.
The performances are brilliant in their stark and simple frankness. There are no lingering close ups that pander to the viewer’s emotional connection for a staged sympathy. When the 50-year-old hausfrau dishes out the shillings to the men who promise to protect her from those peddling trinkets on the beach or the street, there is also a sense that this woman only wants to be loved. As she gets deeper into it, she eats up the drama that comes when she chooses one man over another and then goes back again to another man, even if it’s all seemingly paid for.
All the while, the drama within the frame features scenes that are the epitome of ironic discomfort from the flagrant sexuality to the undertone of white material indulgence. It plays as much with the knowledge of the viewer as well as his or her conscience, transmitting comedy and tragedy at once in its statement of culpability. Paradise: Love is far from escapist cinema, but it is important cinema. In fact, very few films slap the viewer into looking at reality with such harsh yet subtle scenes. There is no cheap violence or overripe sexuality. This is raw and distant yet involving. Seidl is saying, “look,” with a soft, assured, even-toned voice, “this is you.”
Paradise: Love runs 120 minutes, is in English and German with English subtitles and is unrated (the film features lots of frank, full-frontal sexuality). It opens at the Miami Beach Cinematheque this Friday, May 24, which provided a DVD screener for the purposes of this review. The trilogy continues at MBC with Paradise: Faith (about the sister’s “vacation”) in
July August and Paradise: Hope (about the daughter’s “vacation”) in October.