After exploring the lusty fleshpots of Africa in “Paradise: Love,” his divisive examination of sex tourism, Ulrich Seidl is back on home turf in Austria with “Paradise: Faith,” but no less willing to challenge auds with startling imagery, ambiguous morality and ruthless black humor. The second part of an interconnected trilogy, this portrait of a middle-aged femme missionary is a bit more accessible than its predecessor, if any film that features masturbation with a crucifix could be called accessible. “Faith” will find congregants at fests, but the trilogy will achieve its true apotheosis on ancillary.
The protagonist, Anna Maria (Maria Hofstaetter, a Seidl regular after “Dog Days” and “Import/Export”), was last seen in “Love,” seeing off her sister Teresa before her fateful vacation to Kenya. After the opening scenes in “Faith” establish Anna Maria’s day job as a medical technician, she, too, begins her own summer break, going door-to-door with a two-foot high statue of the Virgin Mary in order to convert strangers to Christianity, part of the missionary work called for by the Legion of the Sacred Heart.
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Anna Maria spends her free time alone at home, sharing her thoughts with God, whom she worships with a quasi-sexual fervor. Periodically, she mortifies her flesh by flagellating herself with a whip, wrapping a thorny cilice around her midriff (as seen in “The Da Vinci Code”), and walking around the house on her knees while praying, all of it done for real by Hofstaetter, whose commitment to the role is utterly fearless.
However, a serpent shows up one day in Anna Maria’s austere garden of purity: her husband, Nabil (non-pro Nabil Saleh), an Egyptian Muslim whom Anna Maria seemingly married in less devout days, and who was paralyzed from the waist down some time ago in an unexplained accident. For the last two years he’s been away, presumably with his family abroad, but he’s back now and demands to sleep in the conjugal bed again, even if he can’t fulfill all his husbandly duties. Anna Maria obviously doesn’t want the overbearing, mobility-impaired tyrant around, but the tenets of her faith demand that she take care of him in wifely fashion. Hostilities soon escalate, climaxing in a highly comical yet still shocking scene that makes Anna Maria question her beliefs.
If the Southern hemisphere-set “Love” felt like a literal departure for new pastures for Seidl, the helmer’s regular followers will feel a slight sense of deja vu with “Faith” as it fictionalizes themes explored earlier in his career, particularly in his 2003 docu “Jesus, You Know,” an affectionate-acidic portrait of Catholics at prayer. (Anna Maria even begins one spiritual entreaty with the words, “Jesus, you know … “) Elsewhere, the rather rough treatment Nabil dishes out to a friend’s hapless visiting cat recalls elements from Seidl’s classic 1996 docu, “Animal Love.”
Nevertheless, even if the artistic approach — the use of non-pro thesps, the improvised dialogue, and the stylized, static framing — is squarely in Seidl’s wheelhouse, Christof Schertenleib’s editing creates a stronger sense of structure and parallelism than usual. Anna Maria’s knee-propelled circuit around the house rhymes beautifully with Nabil later dragging himself along the same route, after she hides his wheelchair out of spite. The constant juxtaposition of scenes showing the dark and light aspects of the characters endows the pic with a juicy moral complexity that will stimulate post-screening debates. Some will see only mean-spirited mockery of the faithful, especially in the aforementioned masturbation scene, where others will sense honest empathy for the devout. This is Seidl at his slipperiest.
Tech work by the usual roster of Seidl collaborators is up to the same high standard as before, especially from lensers Wolfgang Thaler and Ed Lachman.