Paradise: Faith – Ulrich Seidl watches patiently as humanity self destructs. (Film Review)
Ulrich Seidl originally made the Paradise trilogy as one single film, which I imagine would have run for six hours and come with four hours of free therapy immediately after, so it’s a good thing he chose to break them up a bit. However, each film and its unflinching gaze on human weakness bleeds into the other, informing and infecting its successor, so that Paradise: Faith becomes something very different when seen close to Paradise: Love, Seidl’s first film. On the surface it looks like a well made critique of religious faith but seen close to its predecessor, the themes of unmet desire and freedom of responsibility come to the fore along with alienation and racial and class power issues. In Paradise: Love we watched in horror as Teresa lost her soul and her sense of decency on a trip to Kenya to sleep with beautiful male prostitutes. In Paradise: Faith, we see her sister, Anna Maria trying to make a trade with God – my piety for your 24/7 coverage against harm.
Where Paradise: Love opened with the disarming images of retarded people riding on dogem cars, Paradise: Faith opens with the camera facing an unremarkable, unlit room. Anna Maria soon walks in (Maria Hofstätter) and prays to a large cross with wounded Jesus on the wall. She offers herself up for the nation and its unchaste ways, claiming that so many people are obsessed with sex that they are trapped in a hell of their own making and need freeing from their own desire. She then opens a locked draw on the small desk, removes a flagellation whip and places it on the ground before the cross. She kneels, removes her dress and bra and self flagellates enthusiastically before the cross. The camera moves behind her and we see the redness of her skin and the beginning of welts. When she stops, she thanks Jesus with great passion and then dresses herself. The camera then moves to the next morning, (it’s almost always static – that trick that Haneke loves so much also) and we see Anna Maria going to work. She cleans her hands thoroughly, she examines x-rays, and then she begins a holiday she has taken that sees her remain home but travel door to door to try to convert people to christ. As soon as her holiday begins, she scrubs her house of every spec of dirt, everything being in perfect order, every object in its place. Anna Maria is running from something and she thinks God can protect her from it.
Seidl likes to open these films with these alarming images, but they are also strong elements that speak to the unforced morality Seidl calls the truth of what he is showing. There is no doubt about the erotic ecstasy Anna Maria is experiencing when she is self flagellating, a performance she puts on specifically to stop the carnal desire of the nation, and the elephant in the room is, to stop her carnal desires also. She’s alone and we find out fairly early on that she is married but her husband had a car accident that left him a paraplegic. He’s been away with his family for two years, and decides to return, presumably out of boredom and demand his wife give him his rights as a husband; rights he has no hope of fulfilling due to his physical state, but that he wants to demand of her anyway. A large part of the film is a comical witness to the acts of petty nastiness the pair enact upon each other, one taking this, the other taking that in revenge. Anna Maria misses her Muslim husband, but she replaced him with Jesus when he left, so he has returned to a full bed. It’s a shocking image, when Nabil (Nabil Saleh, one of Seidl’s non-actors) comes into her room and finds that only one half of the bed has been made, the other left stripped bare. Nabil screams at her that she is a whore and accuses her of having an affair, and she is, but his replacement is a statue on a cross, not a man made flesh. Nabil retaliates by trying to remove all the images of Christ from the sterile house, only to find the act makes his wife more distant than ever.
Paradise: Faith isn’t quite as strong as Paradise: Love, but this is mostly due to how much Seidl packs into the two-hour time frame, so the nuanced messages come through thick and fast and it therefore gets a little muddled at times, where as Paradise: Love had a neater feel. There are so many dualities, so many parallels, and so many connections between the first two films, particularly the fact that both women seek love in the arms of lover when they are on holidays. Both women are seeking protection from themselves, but think the enemy is outside, and both have their petty defences against the world. Paradise: Faith is denser though, with the addition of the strange meetings Anna Maria has with impoverished immigrants on her conversion trails, and the inclusion of a masterfully filmed orgy in a park that captures Anna Maria’s attention and ultimately leads to her demise. The group in the park look like the animals they are, their carnal freedom beautifully posited against Anna Maria’s pious cage, their lust looking natural and not at all dangerous. Anna Maria runs home in shock and scrubs herself clean because she has been infected with her own desires, only to refuse her husband again as he literally begs to join her in bed. Maria Hofstätter is brilliant as a terrified woman who doesn’t know who the real enemy is.
I’m not sure if Seidl intended for us to see beyond the religious choke hold on Anna Maria, but given his penchant for getting himself out-of-the-way, I suspect we can see whatever we want. Anna Maria is so distanced from life and the people around her that she is more like a cartoon than a flesh and blood person. Her language is religiously sanctioned so that she only sprouts the party line when it comes to her official position on anything, but we see it all fall apart when she is alone with her husband. If he is the enemy she needed Christ to rescue her from, he is the only other she can’t successfully put at a distance, nor can she wash the stench of him off. Anna Maria’s religious ecstasy is a well performed transcendence by Hofstätter, simply and elegantly filmed by Seidl. Everything about her appears fake as she forces the will of the lord into her life. Fake compared with the people she visits to try to save, fake compared with the orgiastic crew in the park. Only the still frightened patients in Anna Maria’s laboratory look the same as her, clean, obedient and filled with fear.
Paradise: Faith is the kind of film you can see many times to get all of what can be gleaned from it, but it is also the kind of film you will never want to see again. It comes highly recommended from me.