PARADISE: FAITH (Paradies: Glaube) B-
Austria Germany France (113 mi) 2012 d: Ulrich Seidl
Austria Germany France (113 mi) 2012 d: Ulrich Seidl
Women at a crossroads in their life seems to be the common thread in Ulrich Seidl’s Paradise Trilogy, where they’re all looking for something, hoping it will bring them closer to what they think they want or need, but are instead left emotionally blindsided and even more pathetically alone. This second installment is not an easy film to like, though it has its moments, and there were plenty of walk outs during the screening, where Seidl returns to more familiar territory, using a grown up Maria Hofstätter, the overly chatty, utterly annoying hitchhiking star from his depressing and horridly ugly film DOG DAYS (2001), the movie that put Seidl on the map at Cannes, one of the more provocative films ever made due to the astonishingly humiliating and hateful content, where here Hofstätter is Anna Maria, an overly pious radiology technician living alone in her dreary but spotless apartment that features crosses, crucifixes, framed pictures of Jesus, and other religious paraphernalia hanging on the walls in every room. When we witness her prayerful routine of unlocking a drawer and pulling out a whip, then pulling her dress down where she flagellates her naked back, all the while begging forgiveness of Jesus on the cross from a large-sized crucifix hanging on the wall, we quickly realize that pain and self-induced punishments suggest the devotion of only the most fanatically obsessed believers. Anna Maria also sings religious hymns while alone in her home playing an electric piano, and is also part of a heavily devoted prayer group, the Legion of the Sacred Heart, whose avowed mission is to return Austria to Roman Catholicism. But it’s her practice of carrying a large wooden statue of the Virgin Mary with her as she hops on a train and visits poor and mostly immigrant neighborhoods door to door, announcing “The mother of God has come to visit you,” that may be the most problematic, as everything else she does in the privacy of her own home, harming no one, but here she literally barges into people’s lives, offering very little spiritual comfort. On the contrary, her lack of familiarity with the scripture or church history makes her something of a brainwashed devotee whose presence can be highly disturbing. In fact, we never once see her step inside a church or receive a priest’s blessings, as this is instead something she’s decided to do on her own, like declare this her mission in life.
While her orderly life is supported by a repetitive series of pious acts, what’s missing is any amount of spiritual reflection. In this, Seidl has returned to an earlier theme explored in his film JESUS, YOU KNOW (2003), where priests in church are surrounded by statues and religious icons, but rather than communicate with the divine, they are forced to hear an earful of endlessly petty and utterly selfish concerns from the Catholic parishioners who are looking for the Church to help them find a way out of their everyday problems, forcing priests to continually have to deal with the ordinary mediocrity of humans. Anna Maria’s routines are so superficially methodical, where she delusionally thinks she’s communicating with the Lord, performing his missionary service, that it never occurs to her that there are differing points of view. Perhaps her most glaring shortcomings are exposed when a friend drops off a cat for her to look after for a few days and Anna Maria hasn’t an ounce of compassion, instead locking it up in her darkened basement garage 24 hours a day. This recalls another Austrian film, Markus Schleinzer’s Michael (2011), where it is a 9-year old boy kept locked in the basement. But her real test is the arrival of her missing husband, Nabil (Nabil Saleh), an Egyptian-born believer of the Muslim faith who’s been away for two years, crippled from an unexplained prior accident that left him a quadriplegic in a wheelchair. Anna Maria’s marital vows now include no place for her real husband, as her vows are for Christ alone. While initially it seems it may take awhile to get used to sharing her home and habits with another person after the accident, she instead thanks God for it, as it inspired her to renew her faith. She makes a separate bed for him and then leaves him alone to fend for himself, ignoring him completely, which only makes him grow more hostile, believing that he’s being treated like a dog, where an undeclared holy war exists between the two of them who have no business whatsoever being together. While there are humorous touches as he replaces a photo of Jesus at her bedside with their wedding photo, but she quickly sets things straight, only reinforcing her position, which makes him go on the offensive attacking all the religious icons. While there is no backstory to how they met, it does draw a comparison to Fassbinder’s ALI: FEAR EATS THE SOUL (1974), another film where xenophobia cripples a marriage.
Seidl’s films tend to dwell in miserablist human conditions, where there is no way to view Anna Maria’s life without seeing how disconnected she is from any real human companionship, as she has no family or friends, has nothing in common with her husband, who she blatantly rejects at every turn, turning him into a monster, and no interests outside of a delusional mission to serve Christ. So all her efforts prove to be in vain. At night, when she takes the crucifix off the wall and starts feeling the body of Christ for sexual arousal, all bets are off, especially when she masturbates to it, which may be a bit much for true believers. This turns her from a tragic to a completely pathetic figure, one of the walking wounded, who is little more than a ticking time bomb before she goes off. Her practice of visiting the needy only grows more ridiculous, as she’s in no condition to help anyone, and only further confuses the lives of people already marginalized from society, as they don’t know what to make of her, like Herr Rupnick, an over-aged orphan who has already lost his replacement mother and family, whose life is in such a state of turmoil that she can only add to his emotional imbalance, or Natalya Baranova, an already over-the-edge Russian prostitute who despises Austria and spends the entire visit drinking recklessly, barely able to stand up, literally attacking Anna Maria each time she has to hear her religious spiel, where the two are tussling on the floor, pulling each other’s hair out, all in the name of Christ, apparently. In the howling winds afterwards, the fates appear against her, where she’s continually fighting a losing battle, surrounded by sinners and non-believers who have no intention of converting to Catholicism, leaving Austria in a state of abject misery. While the style of the film is completely uncompromising, given a near documentary look, the repetition of routine only accentuates the claustrophobic confines of her Christianity-proofed apartment, where she eventually pours holy water in the form of a cross on her husband’s clothes, and even on her husband, as if he were a vampire ready to strike. Xenophobic hatred is extremely well integrated into her religious fanaticism, as in her mind foreigners are the wretched of the earth, where all they need to turn their lives around is to find Christ, making them a true Austrian. But without a conversion, they remain society’s outcasts, a burden to the highly disciplined Austrian way of life.