Runs Fri., Sept. 13–Thurs., Sept. 19 at SIFF Cinema Uptown. Not rated. 120 minutes.
The opening shot of Ulrich Seidl’s Paradise: Faith is both a character sketch and a warning. A woman enters a spartan room, partially disrobes, and kneels before the crucifix on the wall. She then whips herself across the back with a crude cat-o-nine-tails. At length. That’s the warning part: Seidl is serving notice that Paradise: Faith will be a test of endurance and not for the faint of heart. (The movie’s the middle installment of Seidl’s Paradise trilogy, bracketed by Paradise: Love—seen here in June—and Paradise: Hope; they are slightly but not significantly related.)
The woman is Anna Maria, played by the extremely brave Maria Hofstätter. After our startling opening glimpse, we see her as a neatly coiffed medical technician, beginning a staycation during which she’ll trudge though Vienna neighborhoods carrying a statue of the Virgin Mary and buttonholing strangers about joining the ranks of her extreme Catholic sect. Seidl frames her world as perfectly symmetrical, an order upset when her husband (Nabil Saleh) returns after a couple of years away. He is Muslim and also paraplegic, and his resumption of marital place upsets Anna Maria’s tightly wound existence. The movie whipsaws between unpleasant domestic scenes and unpleasant missionary doorbelling, with the occasional break for Anna Maria’s ecstatic and occasionally blasphemous worshiping of her Savior.
This is one of those movies that inspire concern for the actors onscreen. From the very first moments, I was worried about Hofstätter’s well-being (that cat-o-nine-tails must be fake—er, right?), and some of her punishingly long scenes with other actors are the stuff of welts and bruises, to say nothing of nightmares. In a different kind of movie—maybe one in which some measure of sympathy was afforded the characters—Seidl’s unblinking depictions of brutality might lead us into a deeper understanding of this world and whatever issues have led these people to such extremes. Or maybe to some wildly imaginative fable-like zone, as in Lars von Trier’s Breaking the Waves, to name another movie that mashes up faith and punishment. But in Paradise: Faith, the insights get muddied in the nail-on-the-head cruelty—it’s an interesting film to think about, but grueling to sit through.