The second chapter in Austrian filmmaker Ulrich Seidl's Paradise Trilogy, "Paradise: Faith" is an unforgiving look at the quest for piety in the modern world. The trio of films follow three female members of the same family as they escape on separate vacations. Whereas Theresa (a fearless Margarete Tiesel) opted to travel to Kenya on a journey of sexual abandon in the first film "Paradise: Love," the more upright Anna Maria (Maria Hofstätter) remains at home on a spiritual mission. While "Paradise: Love" displayed three seemingly incongruous qualities simultaneously (it was strangely hopeful, unrepentantly bleak, AND darkly humorous), I found this second film a bit less humorous and a lot less hopeful. But it was uncompromisingly realistic in its portrait of a woman giving her life to a cause despite the lack of tangible earthly reward.
Anna Maria is a hospital lab technician by occupation and, as the movie opens, we see her going through the duties of getting patients prepped and scanned for analysis. She sets off on vacation, but we soon discover that her plans are not for travel but to do local missionary work. Visiting areas where recent immigrants congregate, she takes the word of Jesus to them. These confrontations range from amusing, to exceedingly awkward, to downright hostile, but still she perseveres with her faith and sense of duty. She holds herself to a strict standard, even engages in self-flagellation to cleanse her body and soul of temptation. Things get more complicated, however, when her disabled husband (Nabil Saleh) shows up on her doorstep. As a Muslim, he doesn't understand her unwavering faith and his presence leads to uncomfortable challenges for the struggling Anna Maria. Surely, though, if she stays on a true course then God won't give her more than she can handle.
"Paradise: Faith" is not a movie for everyone. By design, it is static and even repetitive. One is never allowed to get into Anna Maria's mind, we must intuit her beliefs by the actions presented on screen. Had we gotten into the depth of her psyche, this might have been a searing character study. But that's not what Seidl is shooting for. While I was never sure what the end goal of the picture was, it was powerfully rendered when we arrived at the final scene. The movie never explains how these two disparate soul married in the first place, but her husband's challenge is the final push to make Anna Maria question whether it's all worth it. Living for Jesus isn't for wimps! And this is where the movie relies on Hofstätter. Her bold and forceful performance (despite a certain lack of character insight) still make it a journey worth taking. At times painful, this exploration of religious fervor resonates beyond the final frame. And in that, it is a success. KGHarris, 9/13.