Home Video Hovel: Paradise: Faith, by Aaron Pinkston
The second leg of Ulrich Seidl’s “Paradise Trilogy” shifts focus to Anna Maria, the sister of lovelorn Teresa, whose story was captured in Paradise: Love. As the title of Paradise: Faith would indicate, Anna Maria is on a search for spiritual fulfillment. She’s an old-school hardcore Christian who kisses a bedside portrait of Jesus every night before sleeping and kneels at a cross, whipping herself to atone for her’s and other’s sins. The opening scenes establish that Anna Maria doesn’t have much of a social life — she spends her vacation from work at home in a cycle of cleaning, praying and sleeping. Her faith in Jesus has replaced any earthly love or connection. When her Muslim husband unexpectedly returns home from a two year absence, the faith and purity she is desperately holding on to meets obvious challenges.
Thematically similar to her sister Teresa’s struggle to find love in an environment that only really offer sex, Anna Maria spends her time outside the home going door-to-door in poor immigrant neighborhoods looking to bring Jesus into the lives of these “lost” souls. The film is divided between Anna Maria’s home life, including her relationship with her husband, and four encounters she has with different people in the community.
Because of her hardened personality and radical beliefs, Anna is far from a sympathetic character. Her emotional struggles in the film are just as intense as Teresa’s in Paradise: Love, but it is really difficult to emotionally connect with her. She basically inhabits every self-righteous trait that turn people off to Christianity, but to the most extreme levels. As she’s trying to save those around her, she does so through hate instead of love. There are undoubtedly people out there who are as zealous in their love for Jesus as Anna Maria, but it is difficult to make that character feel full. When Anna Maria is at her most disturbing, though none of her actions are played for any comic effect, she feels so over-the-top. Overall, I don’t think the film is anti-religion or faith, targeting more the extreme section of this group. Still, because the character is not even slightly sympathetic all the bad that happens feels torturous to the audience, as well.
It doesn’t help that the film is openly at odds with her. When she is out in the community she is working against characters at the very opposite end of the spectrum. For example, one particularly difficult scene pits her with an alcoholic prostitute. At another point, she just happens to stumble into an orgy that seems to be taking place in a public park. As she encounters sinner after sinner, it feels like a cruel joke, like she is being punished. There is one exception, the best scene in the film, where Anna Maria has an argument with an older, unmarried couple living together — the discussion has its share of tension and disagreement, but it doesn’t feel oppressively dark.
The film’s central conflict is between Anna Maria and her husband, Nabil. At first, Nabil feels like the character the audience can connect to, as his mission is to rekinder the love that he and his wife once had. When he realizes Anna Maria’s ultra-religious turn is all too radical and too permanent, he changes from the simple and nice guy we first met into a nearly equally hateful and hardened person. Quickly, their relationship becomes incredibly combative, leaving no hope for any sense of any emotional solace.
Though Paradise: Faith is much less successful than its predecessor, I am still interested in seeing this trilogy through. The film is relentless, every bit as difficult to watch as Paradise: Love, but not nearly as compelling or emotionally complex. Much of the praise I had for Seidl’s directing style remains the same, as he pushes hard to challenge the audience — he is by no means a subtle filmmaker. His unrelenting style has been proven to work as long as there are characters that can grow through their tough situation. Hopefully the third film in the trilogy, Paradise: Hope, has an apt title.