I’m working through Austrian director Ulrich Seidl’s Paradise trilogy one film at a time. I’m aware that each entry is inextricable from the other two (they were originally intended to be one long film), but because I’m watching them with roughly a month between each viewing, I don’t get to understand the benefit that the later films give to the earlier ones until I see them. But now that I’ve seen the second, Paradise: Faith, which is about the struggle with crazy religious ideology suffered by the sister of the woman in the first film (Paradise: Love), I’m glad I’ve had the space between viewings. For all their flaws, the films — arch, depressing, and meticulous — build on one another into something greater than their parts.
I wasn’t too high on the first in the trilogy, Paradise: Love. I thought that Seidl’s hyper-realistic, hyper-depressing film about an overweight woman being duped by Kenyan gigolos was an obviously concocted sob story with a dreary over-reliance on easy verisimilitude. But I also thought it was pretty damn touching, which is a tribute, I think, to the equal powers of the raw filmed image and the very good actor. While I think that Faith is slightly better than Love, the same criticism feels appropriate: it’s concocted in order to be as much of a lacerating bummer as possible, this time taking steadfast aim at people so torn up by bad fortune that they turn to extremely literal interpretations of Christianity for something like solace. But, when viewed as the cousin of Paradise: Love, with an equal helping of Seidl’s unarguable talent for making his beautiful imagery feel incredibly real, I have to recommend Faith (which, if you pay attention to the film, is the same thing as not recommending faith), especially if it can be watched alongside Love.
Faith is about Anna Maria, a middle-aged Austrian x-ray technician who’s taking a week-long stay-cation from the hospital where she works. Like her sister Teresa (the protagonist of Love, who never shows up in Faith), Anna Maria is intent on using her yearly break from work to do something that will change her life. In Teresa’s case, that meant succumbing to the easy charms of male prostitutes. Straying about as far as possible to the other side of the spectrum, Anna Maria’s idea of a life-affirming vacation is to take the train into the slums of Vienna to bring the word of Christ to the down-and-out. She knocks on doors of strangers with an absurdly over-sized wooden statue of the Madonna in her arms, then bullies her way into their homes, proselytizing with furious arrogance, railing against lust, greed, and sloth with a downright scary look in her eyes.
Seidl goes to considerable lengths to demonstrate how his heroine is a desperate nut; she not only invades the homes of the unsuspecting poor, but also self-flagellates before a grisly crucifix and crawls across the floor of her apartment saying Hail Marys, then sits in her bathroom disinfecting the wounds on her knees. It’s clearly an awful thing she’s doing to herself, but for Anna Maria, in her world of piety and door-to-door zealotry, everything is right as rain up until the unexpected return of her estranged husband, Nabil. Nabil is a not-too-devout Muslim man who’s recently been paralyzed in an unexplained accident. He shares Anna Maria’s apartment and relies on her to make it through the day — changing the sheets, taking a bath, and getting downstairs have all become daunting tasks — but we find upon his return that her stringent Catholicism must be a new thing, because it come as a surprise to him. It doesn’t take long before it becomes the biggest obstacle in his life.
For the first third of the film, Seidl meanders between long sequences of Anna Maria recruiting and longer ones of her lonely attempts to atone for whatever she thinks God doesn’t like about her. After Nabil shows up, Seidl settles into the film’s main bout: the awful home life attempted by the couple. Things are as ugly for the couple in their little world as they were for Teresa in the tourist traps of Kenya, and they’re pristinely constructed to be lessons on the stupidity of looking for happiness in easy places — vacations, prostitutes, religion, sex. It’s hardly convincing when Seidl seems to take so much pleasure in watching his characters suffer for their confusion, in watching Anna Maria whip herself or come to the brink of a nervous breakdown after witnessing a piggish orgy in the middle of a public park. But it’s helpful, if possible, to see Faith and Love together. Whether it’s religion or love he’s got a problem with, at least Seidl has the talent and focus to make his spurious case for human folly just as firmly.