Paradise: Faith is the second part of Austrian director Ulrich Seidl’s Paradise trilogy. The first one, Paradise: Love, was about a middle-aged woman who went as a sex tourist to Kenya and learned a thing or two about life and love there. This time the theme is, as the title suggests, religion and faith as we’re introduced to Anna Maria, a nurse who’s also a devout Catholic and spends a lot of her free time praying to her crucifix and making house-calls to random people, hoping to save their souls.
While Paradise: Love didn’t have much of a plot it at least had something of a clear setting (the sunny beaches of Kenya) and premise (sex tourism) but things are not as clearly defined here. Paradise: Faith is more of a character study. In the first act or so we slowly delve into Maria’s world, her work, her home and her religious practice, with several scenes of her visiting various people and her different dealings with them (some just slam the door, some pray with her briefly, some have heated discussions with her) but eventually something of a structure becomes clear as her husband (who’s a Muslim) arrives one day after having been absent for a long while.
Paradise: Faith is in many ways a very interesting film and a clear showcase of Seidl’s clear talents as a filmmaker. Most of the actors here (save for the lead) are amateurs but Seidl manages to bring excellent performances out of them all. Maria Hofstätter is utterly convincing in the lead, baring her body and soul and not holding anything back, and Nabil Saleh is no lesser as her husband, Nabil (all the characters in the movie bear the same names as the actors playing them). Likewise the film is beautifully shot and staged, Seidl is well in control of the proceedings here and seems to know what he’s doing, at least in terms of direction and technical elements.
And yet it’s not always clear exactly what Seidl is doing, at least in regards to the film’s theme and subject matter. Is he trying to say something deep and profound about faith and religion or is he just making fun of those people? You could say he’s doing both but the latter is much clearer while the former comes off as a little muddled.
He shows us the various aspects of the religious life of Anna Maria but in the end it’s hard to sympathise with her as she repeatedly comes off as a rather unlikable person. Early in the film a friend of hers leaves her cat with Anna but Anna winds up keeping it in one room the whole time and her idea of taking the cat “out” is to stick it on her balcony while still in the cage, with the cat understandably whining. Anna also turns out to be a hypocrite as she preaches about the sanctity of marriage early on but then it turns out she’s separated from her husband herself.
Anna’s relationship with her husband winds up being the main focus of the film but for the most part Seidl just makes the viewer dislike these two people as they treat each other rather horribly throughout the film. Gradually we do get an idea as for why the are so pathetic and hopeless, as it seems to mostly be sexual frustration. Nabil is paralyzed from the waste down and thus can’t satisfy his wife, or himself, and Anna’s devout religion is what hinders from being able to get herself off as doing it herself, or with someone else than her husband, would be sinful. Of course she winds up sinning anyway.
Paradise: Faith is not really a very subtle film as most of its points become rather obvious early one (or are made obvious eventually) and thus it largely just wallows in misery and repeats itself a lot, for nearly two hours. The Paradise trilogy was originally supposed to be just one film telling three stories but then it obviously got changed. While Paradise: Love did work as one whole piece of work, Paradise: Faith seems more like a film that would have worked better as a short or part of a bigger picture. At two hours it really drags with several scenes that go on long after the point has been made.
Still, while the film doesn’t work as a whole there are undeniably some very strong scenes here. Notable is a very funny scene were Anna visits an old man who’s only clad in his underwear and awkwardly tries to get him to pray, as well as a scene where she stumbles upon an orgy held in a public park at night (after witnessing it she runs home and takes a shower, not just washing off the metaphorical filth but also because most likely she wanted to, deep down, participate in it herself).
Final Verdict: A well directed and acted but ultimately unsatisfying attempt at religious satire that’s in the end too obvious and repetitive. It goes on for much too long and really drags at times and wallows too much in misery. Still remains interesting throughout and contains several strong scenes, not to mention a great central performance.