Film Review: ‘Paradise: Faith’

Ulrich Seidl’s Paradise: Faith (Paradise: Glaube, 2012), the second chapter in the Austrian’s Paradise trilogy, begins with a semi-naked hausfrau flagellating herself in front of an effigy of Christ – and just gets stranger. Powerful in parts, yet raw and uncomfortable for long stretches, Faith suffers from many of the same pitfalls as previous offering Love – in particular, Seidl’s non-judgemental handling of his morally-suspect characters. Leaving the sex tourist-plagued beaches of Kenya far behind, we return to Vienna to follow the story of devout local Catholic Anna Marie (a commendable Maria Hofstätter).

On vacation from her day job as a kindly X-ray technician, Anna Marie (sister to Love‘s Teresa) takes it upon herself to spread the word of Jesus Christ to the sinners around her, parading a foot-high statue of the Virgin Mary with her as she goes. Her primary ‘target’ are Vienna’s immigrant populace – some God-fearing, some not – whom she believes have strayed from the righteous path of purity and worship. However, beneath her zealous façade lies a secret – a wheelchair-bound Muslim husband who returns to her in search of sanctuary and care. How can she possibly decline such a request under God’s watchful gaze?

As with Teresa in Love, Faith’s middle-aged female protagonist is also on the hunt for adulation – this time from her coveted Jesus, rather than the opposite sex. Confronted with Anna Marie’s rather extreme approach to religious ritual (backs are whipped, knees are scraped), we get a sense of just how suffocating her path towards supposed enlightenment has gradually become. Her life is dictated almost entirely by routine, taking breakfast early and indulging in some light keyboard-playing, before hitting Vienna’s poorest districts in order to tend to her flock. This daily itinerary is, of course, completely disrupted by the returning Nabil (non-professional actor Nabil Saleh). From here, things predictably take a turn for the worse.

The introduction of Nabil is one of the most troubling – and consequently most interesting – aspects of Paradise: Faith. As an individual, Anna Marie’s estranged spouse is so clearly at odds with everything his wife stands for as to pose the question of just how the pair actually met and married in the first place. It’s certainly hard not to feel that there’s great contrivance at work within Seidl’s middle act. What we’re provided with is a pressure cooker of clashing belief systems, with religion the unquestionable nuclei. From there, gender roles are continually challenged. Anna Marie remains staunch in her view that a wife should care for her husband, yet is unable to see beyond Nabil’s Islamic faith. Practising what you preach is, for her, easier said than done.

Returning to the fragmented narrative structure of his 1990 film Good News, Seidl’s Paradise: Faith is a bitty, often frustrating study of softcore fundamentalism that shows only tantalising glimpses of the wider ‘state of the nation’ rally cry it had perhaps once been. Certain scenes work remarkably well – one involving a happily unmarried older couple (sinners, in the stone-casting opinion of Anna Marie), cuts incisively to the quick – whilst others feel like sheer provocation for provocation’s sake. Like Love, there’s much here to admire – but little to savour.

Follow the links for reviews of Ulrich Seidl’s Paradise: Love and Paradise: Hope.

Daniel Green