The second film in Ulrich Seidl’s Paradise trilogy, Paradise Faith is a caustic tale of sex, religion and race, on holiday at home in Austria.
Magnificent Obesssion by Mark Wilshin
CAUTION: Here be spoilers
Taking up the baton from Krzysztof Kieslowski’s Three Colours Blue with its Corinthians coda of resounding gongs, clanging cymbals and faith, hope and love, Paradise Faith, the second part of Ulrich Seidl’s Paradise triptych, is bringing the Bible back. To Austria. While Paradise Love explored an older woman’s sex life on holiday in Kenya, Paradise Faith is immediately more religious, (opening on an empty room with a crucifix glinting out of the gloom) and more homely (following as it does Anna Maria during her staycation). She’s not tied into Teresa’s story as tightly as Julie, Karol and Dominique in Paris’s Palais de Justice in Blue and Three Colours White, but she is already familiar from Seidl’s previous film as the holidaymaker’s cat-sitting neighbour. For Anna Maria though, cat-keeping is just a sideline which she pays only cursory attention, her full interest reserved for a faith bordering on fundamentalism.
Kneeling before a crucifix in her spare room, Anna Maria (Maria Hofstätter) begs forgiveness for her unchaste carnal desires, praying that her sacrifice will atone for her sins before proceeding to flagellate herself with a cat o’ nine tails. The next day she goes to work, barking patients into a MRI scanner before taking a fortnight’s vacation at home. And after cleaning her house from top to bottom, Anna Maria heads out into the projects on the other side of Vienna, on her holiday’s true purpose – to bring the Good News to immigrants, and teaching them to pray to a statue of the Virgin Mary on loan. Her simple, austere missionary life, spreading the word through prayer and song however is thrown into disarray when her husband Nabil (Nabil Saleh) returns to the conjugal home. Paralysed and wheelchair-bound following a car accident two years ago, he is keen to start again with Anna Maria. But caught between her wifely duties and her Christian faith, Anna Maria’s world begins to fall apart.
There’s precious little in the simple gold crucifix around Anna Maria’s neck to betray the Christian fervour lurking within. Even after the initial shock of the queue-curled Austrian housewife’s voracious self-flogging for an unknown, unchaste sin – a violence which gives way to prayer and soft-spoken humility just as suddenly as it appeared – it’s uncertain how deep this fundamentalist obsession reaches beneath the clean-cut surface. Her house, like the hotel spaces in Jessica Hausner’s Lourdes, has a religious austerity – only embellished by Anna Maria’s idiosyncratic rituals, filling fonts with a watering can of holy water, playing hymns on a keyboard on full pipe-organ mode, or kissing a bedside picture of Jesus before going to sleep. But it’s not until she dons a self-mortifying iron belt and processes through her apartment on her knees that we begin to notice that her faith is one prayer short of a rosary devotion, as Seidl exposes the ridiculousness of her worship, walking on her knees at speed and culminating in her bed-time advances on a crucifix.
Like Paradise Love‘s interpretation of romance, there’s something very sexual about Seidl’s vision of faith. Going door-to-door to spread the Good News, Anna Maria is on a crusade against sex, vehemently scolding an unmarried couple (a widower and a divorcee) for their adulterous lifestyle. It’s an uncomfortable scene lifted by Seidl’s documentary approach to dialogue, but one which also exposes the dogmatic depths of Anna Maria’s aggressive faith. And when she stumbles upon an orgy in a park at night, it’s a proximity to sex beyond her buttoned-up suburban chastity that both revolts and excites her, literally running home to take a (cold) shower. Faith becomes her armour against sexual desire, directing all her wants towards Jesus on the cross, kissing and caressing her crucifix beneath the sheets.
She doesn’t exactly espouse all Christian values – she’s neither kind nor gentle, hitting Nabil and scrapping with him on the floor. And while the reappearance of her Muslim husband, at first unexplained, appears as an act of charity (cooking him an omelette and allowing him to stay on her sofa), the reassertion of her uxorial duties becomes an unwinnable test of faith, “Thy will be done, not mine.” As Nabil uncovers the shrouded photograph of Mecca, replaces her bedside photo of Christ with a marriage photo of them, and knocks down the crucifixes which adorn every room, Anna Maria’s missionary vow to make Austria Catholic again becomes a battle fought within her own four walls – an acrimonious cohabitation which tests her faith to the extreme. Between Anna Maria spraying her husband’s clothes with an atomiser of holy water or removing his wheelchair to the basement and Nabil insulting, spitting and nearly raping her, Anna Maria’s prayers to withstand the onslaught of hate go unanswered, and she ends up spitting and whipping her beloved crucifix, filled with hatred.
It is nevertheless a belief that continues – with hatred or love, it’s still faith. But with Seidl’s observational style, Paradise Faith never really explores the psychology of Anna Maria’s torment. It’s a documentary tone that works well for Paradise Love, wryly piecing together awkward human relationships, but Paradise Faith is more heavy-handed in its mocking distance, simplistic in its analogies and strained in its conflict. It’s less forgiving towards its heroine than its predecessor and less open to interpretation, but still Paradise Faith is an enjoyably voyeuristic glimpse into the life of a devout and conflicted missionary. A life of faith ultimately without love. But where there’s life, there’s hope.
Paradise Faith is released on 5th July 2013 in the UK