Thursday, October 24, 2013

Movie Review: Paradise: Faith

Paradise: Faith
Directed by:  Ulrich Seidl.
Written by: Ulrich Seidl and Veronika Franz.
Starring: Maria Hofstätter (Anna Maria), Nabil Saleh (Nabil), Natalya Baranova (Natalya), Rene Rupnik (Herr Rupnik).

Like an Austrian Todd Solondz, Ulrich Seidl makes films that are meant to make his audience provoke a response for an audience, make them uncomfortable, and from scene to scene question their assumptions that they have made about the movie and its characters. His ironically titled “Paradise” trilogies don’t depict Paradise of any sort – just like Solondz’s Happiness was filled with miserable people. The first chapter in the trilogy was Paradise: Love, an a middle aged, overweight Austrian woman on vacation in Kenya looking for love, and gradually finds that the love she can find there is for sale – and isn’t love, but sex. You couldn’t help but feel sorry for this lonely woman at times in Paradise: Love, and you couldn’t help but be repulsed by some of the things she does as well. Both she and the Kenyan men she meets are exploiting each other – but at least the men had a better excuse. I left Paradise: Love not knowing how to feel about it – and in the months since I have seen it, I still cannot make up my mind on it. That’s one of the movie’s strengths. The second chapter in the trilogy is Paradise: Faith – and while Seidl is going for something similar, with a different main theme, the result isn’t nearly as fascinating.

Right from the beginning, Seidl is provoking us. We meet Anna Maria (Maria Hofstatter) as she goes about her morning prayers – and then lashes herself while praying to one of the many crucifixes in her house – so we know what kind of faith Seidl is referring to in the title. Anna Maria is a nurse, who goes on vacation (just like the woman in Paradise: Love – who is her sister in what is really the only connection between the two films – you don’t need to have seen the first one to get the second). But she’s not really going anywhere on her vacation – she’s staying at home. She is Catholic, and she and her prayer group are determined to make the whole Austria Catholic as well – a mighty task, but they have God on their side after all. Throughout the movie, we’ll see Anna Maria go to multiple strangers’ houses to prayer with them – and the rather large Virgin Mary statute she brings with her. Some strangers simply slam the door in her face, some humor her, some argue with her, and some seem at least somewhat interested. These scenes range from funny to sad to disturbing.

Anna Maria arrives home one day to find Nabil (Nabil Saleh) in her house. He is an Egyptian Muslim, and although they have a past together, it takes Seidl a while to reveal that he is her husband who hasn’t been living at home in a while. Nabil’s presence, and his mockery of her faith, makes it clear that this conversion to this type of religion is a later in life decision for Anna Maria – a born again Catholic if you will. Although Anna Maria allows Nabil to stay – she refuses to share a bed with him either for sleeping or sex. The later in particular infuriates Nabil, and the two begin a domestic Holy War.

Or at least, I think Seidl wants the audience to see it as a Holy War, but this never really works in the movie. The problem with Paradise: Faith is that it seems to know little about faith itself – neither the Muslim or the Catholic faiths are explored in any sort of detail in the movie, and in fact Nabil seems to be almost secular. He doesn’t go around knocking crucifixes off the wall because he really objects to her religion – but because she refuses to have sex with him, so he wants revenge. The Catholic faith isn’t explored in much more depth than the Muslim one in the movie – and Anna Maria strange relationship with Jesus – which is sexual in disturbing ways – never really makes much sense either. Seidl is obviously going for shock value in scenes like the opening and closing of the film, which are flip sides of the same coin, or the scene where Anna Maria brings a crucifix to bed. The problem is that there really isn’t much in these scenes beyond the shock value.

More effective than the domestic Holy War, and Anna Maria’s S&M relationship with Jesus than are the home visit that she makes to non-believers looking to convert them. These get increasingly disturbing and sad as the go along – beginning with an argument with an older couple who think it’s hilarious that she says they are “living in sin”, and going to a sad sack middle aged man who still misses his dead mother (and is probably just happy someone is there to talk to him) and ending with an extended sequence involving an drunken Russian immigrant woman, who proves too much even more Anna Maria’s devotion. Even if the scenes don’t make much logical sense (since when do Catholics knock on people’s doors and try and convert them), thematically and dramatically, the scenes work.

If there is a reason to see Paradise: Faith, it’s because like Paradise: Love, there is a wonderful performance at its core. Whatever problems I may have with the movie, the performance by Maria Hofstätter is not one of them. She goes for broke in this film, and delivers an excellent performance that helps to paper over the film’s shortcomings.

Paradise: Faith isn’t nearly as good as Paradise: Love. That was a fascinating, haunting film – a moral puzzle that all this time later, I’m still trying to put together. Paradise: Faith is more straight forward, less complex and less interesting. I found myself thinking about Paradise: Love for weeks after I saw the film – and now, just days after seeing Paradise: Faith, I find I haven’t thought of it too much at all. It’s an interesting film, but when compared to what came before, it’s a disappointment.

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