It’s dark and silent. The opening credits appear on screen. Still no image. And then the film begins. No establishing shot or proper introduction; it just starts and an hour and fifty five minutes later, it finishes. Once again, the audience is in the dark and silent. This is Ulrich Seidl’s style and I rather like it.
Love, faith and hope are the chosen themes for the Paradise trilogy. The second film focuses on faith and is set in suburban Vienna. Anna Marie, sister of Teresa (focus of the first film), is a devout Roman Catholic who dedicates herself to spreading the word of God to immigrant areas, during her holidays. Her strict routine and rituals are disturbed with the return of her husband, a paraplegic Egyptian Muslim. Anna Marie dutifully cares for him, but is emotionally cold and distant. My first reaction is ‘how on earth did these two get married?’ Slowly, things unravel and Anna Marie’s pious act becomes more and more disturbing.
Stylistically, Seidl continues on from Paradise: Love, however in this film, there are more static shots. A conscious choice I’m sure to emphasise the rigidity of the character’s life. She has built her own walls that she must live inside. There is no exploring in this film; therefore the tracking shot is abandoned. Seidl’s realistic documentary style is once again apparent, but there are moments of pure surrealism and black comedy. One scene in particular springs to mind where Anna Marie is walking home and comes across a group orgy. At points during the film, the cinema was filled with awkward laughter, however some did not participate. It is not wrong to laugh, far from it; Seidl has created situational humour rather than at the expense of a character. However, as the film continues, the laughs fade away, as the seriousness of events kicks in.
The Guardian criticised Seidl for focusing on sexual humiliation again. Yes, there is an element of this; one scene involving Anna Marie is very risqué. No doubt the film has received many complaints. However, all actions must be put into context, and I feel everything in this film is relevant to story. Sometimes, a life event triggers faith. Little is said about her husband’s accident, but this is the root cause of Anna Marie’s faith. It is a coping mechanism; it gives her a purpose in life again without her husband. Her sexual desires and guilt have not dissipated, she has just repressed them. When her husband returns, things get complicated again.
Paradise: Faith has such depth and complexity. More questions are revealed than answers in this film. Seidl never judges his characters, but Paradise: Faith is a strong critique of Christian fanaticism. In terms of content, parallels could be drawn with Beyond the Hills, and in terms of pacing and narrative style, I couldn’t help thinking of Abbas Kiarostami’s Like Someone in Love. If you like Michael Haneke’s films, then you’ll probably like this. Do not expect paradise, this is about gruelling faith.