Directed by: Ulrich Seidl.
Written by: Ulrich Seidl and Veronika Franz.
Starring: Margarete Tiesel (Teresa), Peter Kazungu (Munga), Inge Maux (Teresas Freundin), Dunja Sowinetz (Touristin), Helen Brugat (Touristin), Gabriel Mwarua (Gabriel), Carlos Mkutano (Salama), Josphat Hamisi (Beachboy).
Ulrich Seidel’s Paradise: Love is a film that makes it tough on the audience to figure out where they should stand. On one hand, you cannot help but feel for the main character – Teresa (Margarete Tiesel), a middle aged German woman, raising a daughter by herself. She is desperately lonely and seeking companionship. She heads to Kenya with a friend – and makes some more along the way – and at first, seems to be genuinely seeking love on the beaches of the African country – and finding many young men more than willing. And surely, the men on the beach are exploiting her – they don’t really love her, and never will even if she doesn’t realize it – they see her as a way to make some quick cash. Teresa learns this lesson the hard way – more than once. And yet while we feel for Teresa, we also have to admit that she exploits the Kenyan men, just like they exploit her – and she has less of a reason too. After all, these young men are poor and looking to provide for their families. As the movie progresses, Teresa does increasingly cruel things to some of the men – partly because she can, and partly to get revenge on them for the way they treated her. Or at least I think that’s the reason. One of the things that makes Paradise: Love so difficult to get a handle is the fact that the movie stubbornly refuses to explain anything. It’s certainly possible to take the movie in several different ways – and now, days after I finished watching the film; I’m still not sure how to react to it.
Paradise: Love is not an easy film to watch – and probably an impossible one to “enjoy” in the traditional sense. This is a film that will make you cringe, and make you change your opinion on the characters – often from one scene to the next. Teresa seems like a nice person – she is struggling at home, but in desperate need of a vacation and a little love. When she first arrives in Kenya she is almost hopelessly naïve as to how things actually work – even when her friend introduces to her “boy toy” and tells her that she bought him the motorcycle he is riding on, it never quite clicks for Teresa that she can have anything she wants, as long as she’s willing to pay for it. She’s looking for love but here, love is for sale and really only takes the form of sex. Her first attempt with a Kenyan man goes awry – and she thinks it’s hopeless. In a scene that is subtly terrifying, she is surrounded by a group of young men, all trying to sell her something, when all she wants to do is walk on the beach. She is “saved” in a sense by Munga (Peter Kazungu) – and the two start a “relationship” – although Teresa does not realize that means two totally different things to each of them – which sets Teresa up for heartbreak
The movie gets uglier as it moves along – culminating in one of the most disturbing scenes in recent memory, as Teresa and her three friends cruelly mock and exploit one of the poor resort workers. The fact that he is a willing participant doesn’t excuse their behavior – and as they have him strip and dance around for them, then have a competition to see who can get him hard first – before cruelly throwing him out of their room. Why does Teresa take part in this? Is it just because she’s angry at how Munga used her – although she used him as well, especially in a scene where she dictates his every move in the bedroom? Perhaps, but for that to be true, you have to ignore a scene much earlier in the movie – before Munga even enters the film – where Teresa and one of her friends cruelly mocks the same employee as he works behind the bar, insulting him in a language he doesn’t understand, and laughing hysterically about it.
I honestly don’t know what to make of Paradise: Love. It is a well-made film by Seidl, who frames every shot precisely (perhaps too precisely at times), and features a wonderful, ambiguous performance by Tiesel, and an interesting one by Kazungu as Munga. These two characters exploit each other, so it’s hard to tell where your sympathies should lie, if they should lie with either of them at all. And because Seidl doesn’t spell everything out for the audience, he makes a thorny picture even thornier. Is there any right answer here?
But Paradise: Love is a fascinating movie – one that whether you love it or hate it (and I can easily see people on both sides here), you won’t be able to stop thinking about. This is the first of a trilogy – including Paradise: Faith and Paradise: Hope, which have already debuted at film festivals, and should make their way to screens this year. Despite my reservations on Paradise: Love, I cannot wait to see the other two films.