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Paradise: Faith (Ulrich Seidl, 2012)

September 14, 2012

I won’t bother repeating myself on how Seidl operates, since the style remains unchanged since Liebe (and from all of his other films), so those who aren’t familiar with Seidl’s works can read my previous review.

The second chapter of the Paradies Trilogy, Glaube (Faith) gained more attention than the previous one, Love, mostly because of the journalists’ morbid hunger for supposed scandals. Despite being way less controversial than Liebe, Glaube has been labelled as blasphemous and disrespectful towards Catholicism, mostly because of the much debated scene in which Anna masturbates with a crucifix.  Fact is, the scene is probably one of the least scandalous shot by Seidl. There’s rather a sense of shyness in it, a delicate moment where faith and love meet.

Considering Seidl a provocative auter is improper, if not overall wrong. He’s crude, relentless, not compliant, but he doesn’t aim at shocking the audience, nor does he want to create sterile polemics. Seidl already dealt with religion, and Catholicism in particular: Jesus, Du Weisst, shot by Seidl in 2003,  is a portrait of six different people, six different approaches to religion, but there’s no trace of irony in it. Despite sometimes being almost insane (at least to a laic viewer), each one of the person portrayed by Seidl is treated with deep seriousness. Glaube doesn’t share the violent anti-clerical vein that characterizes the works of Luis Buñuel, Marco Ferreri or Ciprì and Maresco, just to name a few, and this is because Glaube doesn’t aim to be an anti-clerical film. The extreme way in which Anna (Maria Hofstätter, already present in Seidl’s first feature film Hundstage) lives her Catholicism is just a part of her being, and it’s not condemned or ridiculized by Seidl, just as the search of Theresa for a sexual adventure in Liebe wasn’t judged or condemned.

The main focus of the film is the disintegration of the relationship between Anna and her husband Nabil, an Egyptian Muslim confined to a wheelchair which returns suddenly after years of absence and the clash between their beliefs, which are not so different after all. The camera follows Anna as she spends her holidays, during which she tries to convert as many people as possible, especially immigrants, to save themselves and to save Austria. If in the previous film the skin of Theresa was red because of the sunburns, here the skin of her sister Anna is wounded by the self-inflicted lashes on her back. Through pain and self-humiliation she expresses her love for Jesus. Her group of prayer reunites at her house and stares right into the camera, composing a traditional Seidl tableau, while chanting and praying, creating a strong sequence that startles the audience.

The efforts of Maria, when she tries to convince people to pray in front of a statue of the Virgin Mary, can have hilarious consequences, such as the sequence involving René Rupnik, (a familiar face, since Seidl shot an entire documentary on him, titled Der Busenfreund), or tragic ones, such as the encounter with a russian immigrant that soaks her desperation in alcohol.  The way in which the scenes are perceived depends, as usual, on the audience. As I said before, one of the many pleasures of seeing a Seidl movie at the cinema is checking on the audience reactions. When I went to see Glaube there were few people present, but there has been numerous laughs at certain scenes, especially those involving religious debates or Anna’s self-inflicted punishment. The interesting thing is that the film is not meant to be funny at all, or, to be more precise, it isn’t structured as a mix of comedy and drama. Seidl himself said that:

this reaction says a lot about audience members who no longer take religion very seriously, but this is not my case. I was brought up in the strict Catholic tradition and I conducted enough research and interviews with fervent believers when I made Jesus You Know to be able to tell you that this is not the case for a lot of people. [source]

Despite the rigorous way in which Seidl organizes the shots, always a visual pleasure, the film itself could’ve been way better. The scenes are way too repetitive and similar to each other and the story never fully develops. These are not necessarily bad features, but compared to Liebe, Glaube isn’t fresh enough, nor inspired as the first. The tension between Anna and Nabil remains superficial and sometimes a bit childish, but nevertheless achieve numerous peaks of physical and psychological cruelty. Even the dialogues are often blatant and avoidable, mostly when they deal with problematic issues such as religious conflicts between different beliefs or the way immigrants are treated. These topics have already been explored by Seidl in his previous works with better and more incisive results, and also by other, maybe lesser known, directors such as Christoph Schlingensief.

Try to forget all the media fuss while you watch Paradies: Glaube, because, despite its flaws, it’s still a stimulating and intelligent experience, which gains even more beauty if seen in its entirety along with the other two chapters of the trilogy, a terrifying portrait of our contemporary world, but in which we can still find traces of love, faith and hope.

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