The Paradise trilogy by Ulrich Seidl continues with another film featuring a raw look at social hypocrisy. However, where Paradise: Love put the lens on “love” and money in the post-colonial world, Paradise: Faith examines “faith” and its social constructs gasping for relevance in a dominating secular world, a rather easy target. Seidl has chosen to mock religious devotion from a safe and easy distance. He trains his lens on a woman who lives a life of seeming piety in Austria while loving Jesus Christ a tad too much for comfort.
The film follows the sister of the last film’s protagonist. Anna Maria (Maria Hofstätter) has decided to spend her vacation days from work as a medical assistant visiting the homes of neighbors to spread the Word of Christ. She is part of a group of missionaries (no priest in sight) seeking to make Austria a Catholic country. Her door-to-door visits never go smoothly, from having to explain the Stations of the Cross to a family passively going through the motions to an argumentative older couple “living in sin” because they are unmarried (he’s a widower while she is divorced). Then, after another day of rather fruitless missions, Anna Maria’s paraplegic Muslim husband Nabil (Nabil Saleh) shows up on her couch with a big grin on his face.
If her righteous force-feeding of religion unto her neighbors does not provide enough conflict, the battles that will ensue between these two, along with the baggage of their relationship, heightens the film’s slow-burning tension further. Then there are those hints of displaced affection she seems to show her crucifix and portraits of Jesus. “You are the most handsome man,” she says planting a kiss of a framed icon at her bedside before turning out the lights. “I love you, Jesus.”
The sexuality that crops up in Paradise Faith is more complex and sometimes elusive compared with the overt sexuality presented in extended scenes in Paradise Love. However, as in the last film, many may find the moments of sexuality quite creepy. The difference in this new film comes from the faux-chaste quality that festers below the surface of Anna Maria’s love of Jesus. The goodnight kiss only begins to reveal just how in love she is with her dreamboat, Christ Almighty.
As in his earlier film, Seidl keeps the camera in a static position that hardly moves, giving the film a cold, voyeuristic quality. He also offers no score beyond Anna Maria singing hymns alone to herself on a synthesizer set to billowing organ mode. When she’s at the instrument, Seidl frames her from behind. Throughout much of the film, he presents her from the back and at a distance, only heightening a rather judgmental view on this woman. Furthering the alienation is her unique up-do in a tight bun at the top of her head. Anna Maria is presented as a woman out of touch. It can be seen in her interactions with others outside her Catholic Legion. From her sex-starved husband, who at one point rolls around Anna Maria’s home rampaging against every religious icon he can reach with his extending cane, to a group of sexual deviants, who may include the mentally disabled, which she stumbles across in the park one night engaged in group sex, everyone seems to undermine her. She is alone.
Because she is alone (besides the unknown fellow followers who gather at her home for group prayers that are far from Catholic tradition and closer to fanaticism) the film falters a bit from the social critique offered by the more compelling Paradise: Love. There’s a sense of superiority looking down on these Catholic and Muslim characters fighting against and for their primal urges that does not reach the level of revelation achieved in the more stark Paradise: Love. The attempt to reach at larger statements is revealed in the overly chatty dialogue and the heightened amounts of editing.
Meanwhile, sexuality seems the key undertone of all the film’s arguments, not any sense of faith. Sex seems implied as an inescapable essence of being, damn religion. In fact, if the film’s opening scene of Anna Maria kneeling before a crucifix and praying to be freed of carnal temptation and then dropping the top of her dress to violently lash her back more than a dozen times does not reveal her as a vessel of sexual repression then the closing scene will certainly deliver that point. But to what end? Faith offers a bigger world than organized religion, especially without the guidance of a priest. Even Karl Marx was conflicted over it, despite his widely cited quote that “religion was … the opiate of the masses.” With Paradise: Faith, Seidl has defanged religion to an extent that it becomes an all too easy joke.
Thematic criticism aside, Seidl remains an efficient storyteller who can contain transcendent moments utilizing rather efficient cinematic techniques. The most brilliant coup of this film is how Seidl is able to load up Anna Maria’s actions with the baggage of her unseen past. Simple statements like telling Nabil how she had sacrificed her religion for him and rediscovered it after their separation loads her actions with the implication of their history, which never makes its presence known beyond implication. The film’s raw acting and efficient dialogue breaths exquisite life into the couple’s intense scenes together. There’s potency in the film’s storytelling that does not rely on easy tropes like contrasting flashbacks to inform current moments.
Seidl has a rather confident sense of cinema that he expertly strips to its raw center. But the deeper critique of society is missing from this second installment of the Paradise Trilogy. Religion is too easy a target for a secular European country like Austria. It almost feels like a cop-out. I agree with Seidl that we need not the specter of the wrath of Hell or the reward of Heaven to do unto others as you would have them do unto you. But the only one trapped in this belief is the film’s protagonist who seems somewhat deranged by her fanaticism. Instead of noting an ill in the larger society, as it seemed so interminably mixed in the more interesting world of Paradise: Love, placing the weight of the critique on one unreliable protagonist cuts the bite out of the film’s theme.
The personal drama in the film unfurls potently, and taken as a sad intimate drama, the film works and earns a rather pitiful, ironic finale. Maybe the specter of power over the individual lies within the icons Anna Maria has placed all over her home, but their destruction by Nabil does little to reduce this hold on her. Even if it rings rather hollow, this second film in the Paradise Trilogy will please fans of the first installment, as all of Seidl’s elemental skills inhabit the screen. Having noted that, I look forward to the third chapter in the trilogy, Paradise: Hope, which follows Anna Maria’s niece on her vacation.
Paradise: Faith runs 120 minutes, is in German with English subtitles and is unrated (sexuality seems to present itself as the film’s crux in irony so expect much of it). It opens at the Miami Beach Cinematheque this Friday, Aug. 30, which provided an on-line screener preview for the purposes of this review. An encore presentation of the first part of the trilogy, Paradise: Love, will also screen during the week of Paradise: Faith at MBC (Read my review of Part 1: Film Review: ‘Paradise: Love’ peels away layers perpetuated by Disney gloss of post-colonial times). The trilogy continues at MBC with Paradise: Hope (about the daughter’s “vacation”) sometime in October.