Paradise: Faith is the second part of director Ulrich Seidl’s Paradise trilogy portraying disturbing, ugly aspects of fallible humanity, with no seeming redemption. The first of the trilogy, the recently-unleashed Paradise: Love, you will undoubtedly have read much about, as it deals with sex tourism. And nearly everybody reads articles that contain the words ‘sex tourism'.
Seidl’s is a kind of hopeless, nihilistic vision, as evinced by Paradise: Faith, whose protagonist is a middle-aged woman, Anna Maria (Maria Hofstätter.) At the Vienna hospital where she works as a technician, she seems normal enough, if somewhat care-worn. We see her repeatedly unlocking her apartment, walking to and from the train station, leading a mechanical, humdrum life. All this apparent normality makes the experience of seeing her inner turmoil spill over all the more lurid and intense.
Anna Maria is spending her holiday at home and not going anywhere special, she tells one of the hospital staff. How else to start the holliers than with a big spring clean, surely? Back at the apartment, she scrubs the stairs thoroughly and rigorously. Hmm, always an unhealthy sign - dirt and unkemptness in moderation is good, scrupulous tidiness is not. There are religious icons and mottos on posters - one of which condemns ‘sexual wildness’ - and a picture of Jesus by her bedside which she kisses each night.
In a key early scene, she unlocks a drawer, takes out her portable cat o’ nine tails and flagellates her bare back in front of a crucifix. Director Seidl is rehashing an old theme, going back to medieval times: the twin dynamos of religious and erotic intensity and the blurry line between.
All goes painfully well until the woman’s paraplegic husband, Nabil (Nabil Saleh), a Muslim, returns unannounced after a two-year absence. They did not part on good terms, it seems - he had a drink problem. Nabil has a key and is able to let himself into the flat while she is out. She begrudgingly cooks an omelette but will not allow him sleep with her, making up his bed on the sofa.
Meanwhile, she resumes her mission - what a way to spend the holidays – knocking on doors in the more unsavoury apartment blocks of Vienna. She is trying to persuade immigrants and social misfits to adore the statue of the Blessed Virgin that she carts around with her. One such encounter makes it a decidedly dangerous mission, and at home Nabil is becoming demanding and dangerous. And, really, folks that’s about it (apart from the scene where she stumbles on a nocturnal orgy in a park).
I found myself asking, as I paraphrased Peggy Lee, is that all there is? Nevertheless, Paradise: Faith is brilliantly acted with Dogme-like verisimilitude, and will keep you curious until the rather anti-climactic end. This woman is not right, but it runs deeper than religious guilt or the difficulties of a marriage between a Christian and Muslim. Pity we didn't get even a meagre chink of light cast on just why Anna Maria might be as screwed-up as she is. Creepy but fascinating. Runs exclusively at the IFI.