An MMKmedia production with support from ORF (Film/TV agreement) and Filmfonds Wien, co-produced with ARTE. (International sales: Austrian Film Commission, Vienna.) Produced by Martin Kraml.
Directed by Ulrich Seidl. Screenplay, Seidl, Veronika Franz. Camera (color, DV-to-35mm), Wolfgang Thaler, Jerzy Palacz; editors, Christof Schertenleib, Andrea Wagner; sound (stereo), Ekkehart Baumung. Reviewed at Karlovy Vary Film Festival (competing), July 5, 2003. Running time: 87 MIN.
With: Elfriede Ahmad, Waltraute Bartel, Hans-Juergen Eder, Thomas Ullram, Angelika Weber, Thomas Grandegger.
By LESLIE FELPERIN
An austerely stylized documentary in which a half-dozen devout Catholics pray out loud in front of the cameras, Ulrich Seidl’s “Jesus, You Know” is visually glorious and sometimes moving, but comes coated with a thick hoarfrost of irony. Pic recalls the freakish obsessives and solipsists in the Austrian helmer’s earlier docus on pet owners and models more than his internationally distributed feature debut, “Dog Days,” though it shares the latter’s gimlet-eyed view of human oddity. Contemplative pace and religious content may scare off buyers outside of Catholic territories, but pic could find life on the fest circuit and more rarified webs.
Disguising the presence of any interviewers and even dispensing with captions identifying the worshipers, this fly-on-the-pew view of prayer benefits from divinely inspired “casting.” Although each of the six subjects comes to pray for very different reasons, all unabashedly expose their most private thoughts for the camera. In long, rigidly symmetrical takes, in an assortment of churches ranging from baroque to Spartan (architecture and religious art are central to the film’s overall design), the protagonists commune with God, praying for peace, guidance, signs and wonders.
Their backstories gradually emerge through a confusing tumble of details within the prayers. Gray-bobbed Elfriede Ahmad, a cleaner at one church, seeks strength for coping with her chronically ill Pakistani husband, glimpsed in darkness in some of the film’s occasional cutaways to the subjects’ domestic lives. Laughs are raised when she laments that her spouse lacks the “gift to choose the right television programs” and despairs of his taste for Jerry Springer-style confessional talkshows.
An older man (Hans-Juergen Eder) in an austere white church seeks help with his relationship problems and loneliness, while a stout middle-aged matron (Waltraute Bartel) broods intensely on her husband’s affair with another woman.
Meanwhile, a trio of younger people, a lonely late teen boy living with his parents and a twentysomething couple, tussle with all the usual anxieties of youth. Thomas Ullram is nagged by his mother for preferring coming to church to tidying his room, and confesses bashfully to feeling sexually excited by the gossip about the sex lives of movie stars of his TV guide.
Seidl slyly intercuts close-ups of church decoration — sacred hearts, various crucifixes and the like — which match the subject’s preoccupations and create a sense of rhythm and movement in a pic where every single shot is rigidly static. Similarly, music is source-only throughout.
Pic’s mannered, frontal composition often places people in the lower half of the frame, leaving the upper half empty, as if creating space for an invisible deity hovering above the subjects. Helmer’s detached style has often been likened to that of photographers like Diane Arbus or Richard Billingham, with their taste for the bizarre and seedy, and deadpan approach to eccentrics. “Jesus, You Know” may be Seidl’s most original, least derivative work yet but its coolly distanced approach could be read as sneering by more religiously sensitive viewers.