The Movie Waffler New Release Review - Paradise: Faith | The Movie Waffler

New Release Review - Paradise: Faith

Second installment in Ulrich Seidl's 'Paradise' trilogy.

Directed by: Ulrich Seidl
Starring: Maria Hofstätter, Nabil Saleh, Natalya Baranova

Anna Maria (Hofstatter) is a middle-aged Austrian working in a clinic by day, spreading the word of Jesus by night. Each evening, and at weekends, she takes a train to the poorer suburbs of Vienna where she knocks on doors, plastic statue of Mary Magdalene in hand, attempting to convert immigrants to Catholicism. Some are happy to indulge her but most inflict verbal, and even physical, abuse on Anna Maria. When her wheelchair-bound Muslim husband, Nabil (Saleh), returns home after an unexplained two year absence, her increased fundamentalism drives a rift between the two.
Across Europe, Christianity is dying out, yet those who choose to remain Christian are growing increasingly fundamental. Anna Maria is one such person. If you have a low threshold for these type of religious whack-jobs, Anna Maria will truly test your patience. I don't think I've seen a more despicable character onscreen all year, at least not in such a tangible form, and Hofstatter is eerily impressive in the role.
As you'd expect from an Austrian film, for the most part Seidl's second installment in his 'Paradise' trilogy (sandwiched between 'Love' and the upcoming 'Hope') is relentlessly grim. Watching Anna Maria inflict physical punishment on herself, like a Christian version of Isabelle Huppert's 'Piano Teacher', can be hard to watch, but for rationalists it's her constant mumbling of incantations which really grates. Interestingly, no subtitles are provided for these "prayers". It's a trick which is both clever and crude, reducing her words literally, at least for non-German speakers, to meaningless nonsense.
Among the general murkiness, we get the occasional moment of black comedy. A scene involving Anna Maria's visit to a mentally-challenged man provides some of the biggest laughs I've had in some time and reminded me of the infamous "cot" scene in Kubrick's 'Lolita'. The humor goes a little over the top towards the end, however, as Anna Maria and Nabil's bickering comes close to 'Tom & Jerry' levels. 
Seidl frames his tortured protagonist in the same manner she thinks of herself: low. Anna Maria's eye-line is rarely higher than the midpoint of the frame. The same goes for Nabil, but of course he is wheelchair-bound. Both characters, Seidl's framing tells us, are crippled in different ways. The director's point, that religion is an affliction to the mind, ultimately cripples his film to a degree. Those who share his view of faith will require more than this simple and blunt message, while those who disagree are unlikely to be the audience for a film of this nature. When you preach solely to the choir, you can't expect any converts.

Eric Hillis