Anna Maria (Maria Hofstätter), the devout Catholic protagonist of Paradise: Faith, doesn’t just love Jesus Christ: She’s actually in love with him. She prays to him constantly, asking for forgiveness for the transgressions of all mankind. Her well-appointed home has a crucifix or some other religious symbol in every room. At night, she kisses the Jesus portrait she keeps on her nightstand and stares at it longingly. When she takes a vacation from work, she spends her free time going door-to-door in a poor neighborhood in Vienna, a large statue of the Virgin Mary cradled in her arms, trying to persuade those who invite her in to let God into their lives. Some nights, she flagellates herself in the nude, trying to atone for all the world’s sins.
Anna has devoted her entire existence to her faith. Nothing else interests her, other than keeping her home spotless. Her only friends are the members of her prayer group, the Legion of the Sacred Heart, who meet at her house to sing hymns and vow, somewhat ominously, to make Austria Catholic again. Director Ulrich Seidl observes Anna primarily through static, carefully composed framings that emphasize the empty spaces around her (practically the entire movie consists of medium and long shots). Her loneliness is overwhelming, which helps explain why she has been consumed by religion. When she comes home one night and turns on the light, the camera makes a sudden, startling pan to reveal a man, Nabil (Nabil Saleh), sitting on her couch. We gradually learn he is Anna’s husband, rendered paraplegic by an unnamed accident, and he has returned after an extended absence. Anna doesn’t seem all that happy to see him, but she makes him dinner and sets up a pull-out for him to sleep. He demands to share her bed, but she refuses. Anna only sleeps with Jesus now.
Paradise: Faith is the second in Seidl’s trilogy of films that use the unusual vacations of three women to explore virtues (the first, Paradise: Love, centered on a female tourist’s sexcapades in Kenya; the third, the upcoming Paradise: Hope, is about a teenager sent to a summer weight-loss camp). Originally conceived as one mammoth epic, Seidl wisely broke the project into separate stand-alone movies (the only connection between the three pictures is that the women are all related). Like the previous film, Paradise: Faith is at times incredibly difficult to watch: There are four moments in the picture when Seidl takes his camera off the tripod and resorts to hand-held shots, resulting in long, excruciating sequences — all completely different — that are close to unbearable. But you can’t look away, either. Much like his fellow Austrian filmmaker Michael Haneke, Seidl knows how to keep his audience captivated while rattling us with a discomfiting precision.
This rigorous movie, which requires but rewards patience, grows increasingly harrowing after Nabil, who is a Muslim, starts to lash out at Anna’s controlling ways. First he demands that she allow him to watch TV (she thinks movies and television are evil). Then he lashes out at the way she treats him as a patient instead of a husband. Eventually, a holy war breaks out in their home. Seidl maintains the same cool, clinical tone he used at the start of the film, which only increases the tension. There are some remarkable scenes in Paradise: Faith that tap into a weird, subconscious dread, such as Nabil’s prolonged attempt to feed a hissing, pissed-off cat, or the night Anna makes her love of Jesus literal. And although there are several stretches in the movie in which Seidl seems to be repeating himself, the director is carefully building toward a knock-out final scene in which the inscrutable, often annoying Anna becomes beautifully, poignantly human in front of our eyes, like magic.
Cast: Maria Hofstätter, Nabil Saleh, Natalya Baranova.
Director: Ulrich Seidl.
Screenwriter: Ulrich Seidl, Veronika Franz.
Producer: Ulrich Seidl.
A Strand Releasing release. Running time: 115 minutes. In German and Arabic with English subtitles. Vulgar language, graphic nudity, explicit sex, strong adult themes. Not suitable for viewers under 17. Opens Friday Aug. 30 in Miami-Dade only: Miami Beach Cinematheque.