Paradise: Faith (2012)
★★ / ★★★★
A woman enters a room and opens the lock of one of the drawers. She takes out a flogging whip, takes off her shirt and bra, kneels in front of the crucifix hanging on the wall, and beats herself with it. As the whip hits her flesh repeatedly, she prays for the others’ sins, mainly their obsession for the flesh. Her name is Anna Maria (Maria Hofstätter) and it is her mission to bring back Austria to Catholicism.
It is likely that many people will approach this film and criticize it for its subject matter rather than what it is attempting to show—a grossly incorrect approach. “Paradise: Faith,” based on the screenplay by Ulrich Seidl and Veronika Franz, is about a woman who is so devout that we are supposed to wonder if she has acquired an unhealthy obsession. What is considered to be an “unhealthy obsession”? It is up to us to decide.
Hofstätter plays Anna Maria with grace and pride. It is not a role for a movie star nor for a performer with a memorable or strong presence.The actor’s face and body are, appropriately, ordinary but because the intensity of her performance does not waver, every time she is front and center—often alone in a confined space—she is extremely watchable. It is interesting that her behavior tells us more about herself than when she speaks. That is because when she talks, it is often either a prayer or an attempt to convince another person to believe in God.
Anna Maria knocks on random people’s doors and claims that the Virgin Mary statue she carries around is visiting them. I enjoyed that Ulrich Seidl, the director, takes some time to have the lead character enter a home and show how people respond to her. One of the best, perhaps because it is so alive and amusing, is when she tries to convince an older couple that what they share is a sin in the eyes of God. The older gentleman’s wife had passed away while the older lady is divorced. To Anna Maria, because the Bible tells her so, the couple in front of her are sinners and therefore must repent.
One would think that Anna Maria would be unlikable. I admired the writers for making her sympathetic rather than treating her as a joke or a punchline. Over time, we are made to see how important her faith is to her. Her mindset is this: Because she believes that becoming a Catholic has changed her life for the better, it is therefore her duty to pass it on—even if the various people she encounters do not want what she has to offer. To Anna Maria, what is right for her must be right for others, too.
But the movie did not work for me as a whole. There is one supporting character (Nabil Saleh) that is introduced less than halfway through the picture who takes away a lot of the film’s focus. That is, Anna Maria’s blind ambition to turn everybody into a Catholic. This character, a paraplegic, is supposed to introduce a comedic tone but it rubbed me the wrong way because the approach is so obvious. He does not agree with Anna Maria’s religious beliefs and so he goes around the house taking down crucifixes, photos of Christ, and the like. It gets old real quick and he is in front of the camera a lot of the time.
“Paradies: Glaube” needs more uncomfortable scenes. One that quickly comes to mind is Anna Maria meeting an alcoholic. Their interaction verges on violence eventually. I felt afraid for our protagonist’s safety. Scenes as such force us to question why she would put herself in that situation. Does she choose to stay because she is devout—that God will protect her no matter what or is it because the danger of the situation does not click fully in her mind? Maybe it is a bit of both.
The film is for patient and thoughtful viewers. Though it does not bring up the most complex questions about what faith is or what having faith means to someone, it does dig up some interesting questions specific to the character. It has a dramatic protective membrane and a darkly humorous nucleus. Prepare to engage and penetrate to get there.