Ulrich Seidl begins the second installment of his Paradise trilogy in the key of Chantal Akerman by way of Michael Haneke. The camera observes a pious Austrian woman’s daily tasks while we’re left to wonder where the visual pleasure will lie: in the deceiving and revealing banality of the quotidian or in the skeptic’s sadism in taking Anna Maria (Maria Hofstätter) down? She mops her kitchen floor, prepares food, polishes the staircase railing, coifs her hair with lots of hairspray, and plays religious tunes on her organ. She also whips herself multiple times while kneeling before a crucifix and spends her vacation knocking on strangers’ doors, mostly immigrants’, trying to convert them. Throughout, Anna Maria often suggests a fictional construct let lose in the real world, as the naturalistic acting style of the strangers the character meets clashes with Hofstätter’s more exaggerated mode of performance, giving Paradise: Faith the feel of a Borat facsimile. This is actually the most interesting element in the film, when it feels the most alive. Otherwise, Seidl drably articulates a contrived script that only sees dualities.
Seidl masterfully plies his artistry with great subtlety in Import/Export. In that film, and in parts of Paradise: Love, we weren’t always sure of what we were looking at, and we couldn’t predict what the camera would offer us next—not in terms of suspense-building, but in the way the world of those films was too authentic and multi-dimensional not to surprise us. Perhaps Paradise: Faith only sees in dichotomies—devotion/atonement, belief/non-belief, chastity/orgy, Germanic cleanliness/post-Soviet drunkenness—because it embodies Anna Maria’s religious belief system. But the strategy leaves us with a sense of shallowness, knowing exactly what we’re seeing, and able to predict what the characters will say to each other in the mostly uninspired and overtly familiar dialogue. In Seidl’s either/or approach, the opposite of extreme belief in Jesus is, for example, sexualizing a crucifix, as in a gratuitous scene in which Anna Maria takes the totem off the wall to manhandle it at once like a baby being breastfed and as a masturbating device. In another scene, she runs into a nocturnal outdoor gangbang at a local park and caresses her rosary as though it were her genitals, mesmerized by the bacchanal.
The film is only interesting during scenes wherein Anna Maria visits strangers to get them to pray, at which point the relationship between the actors exudes an improvisatory aura. Anna Maria remains a caricature, but the strangers are full of life, as in a scene where she visits a non-married couple (Anna Maria refers to their arrangement as “permanent adultery”) that tries to reason with her that the concept of sin is ridiculous and that there are too many people in the world for us not to use birth control. In this brief moment, as Anna Maria stands in the couple’s living room with the monolithic impenetrability of a cartoon character, her hosts emanating a more striking believability, the stodginess of the rest of the film becomes especially apparent.
We want to remain in this scene, exposed to the surprises that “real people” are capable of, but we’re quickly jettisoned back to the lifelessly choreographed domesticity of Anna Maria’s home, where the only truth is her stretch marks. In another attempt at conversion, Anna Maria visits a drunk foreigner, perhaps a prostitute, or a junky, maybe both, who tells her, “I was a human being in the Soviet Union, now I am shit in Austria.” It’s too obvious to be a great line, but it’s a great cue. Unfortuantely, Anna Maria isn’t able to do anything with it, as though impermeable to the actual existence of others. She spews out more over-familiar lines about God, exactly the kind of rhetoric we would presume from a woman like her, while the younger woman tries to touch Anna Maria’s breasts and undo her perfectly coiffed hair. They engage in a physical scuffle, and here again, it’s impossible to divorce the pious from the erotic, and the maternal. But as soon as Anna Maria goes back home, we’re back to the porous-less literality of the film.