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Paradise: Faith

Jeremy Clarke

Directed by Ulrich Seidl; Cert tbc; 113 mins.


This is the second film in the Austrian director Ulrich Siedl's Paradise trilogy. The opening film Paradise: Love (18; 120 mins), just released, concerns 50-year-old Teresa (Margarete Tiesel) going on holiday to a Kenyan beach resort as a sex tourist. The closing film Paradise: Hope (cert tbc; 100 mins), released in August and unseen at the time of writing, concerns Teresa's adolescent daughter going to diet camp. In Paradise: Faith, Teresa's devout Catholic sister Anna Maria (Maria Hofstätter) meets with fellow believers to sing worship songs, knocks on neighbours' doors to spread the Gospel with the aid of portable statues of the Blessed Virgin Mary, yet utterly fails to connect with her recently returned, wheelchair bound, Egyptian Muslim husband Nabil (Nabil Saleh).

All three films are concerned on some level with Western culture's obsession with women being thin while, as consumers, real life women become fat and then struggle to deal with their resultant psychic dislocation. In Love, Teresa repeatedly fails to solve the problem by sleeping with a series of young African men who are driven to service holidaying European women out of basic financial need. In Faith, Anna Maria surrounds herself with religious trappings which, below the surface, appear to have less to do with following Jesus and more with constructing a personal comfort zone. True, she goes into people's houses to spread the Word, but in her lengthy encounter with a drunken, licentious Russian immigrant (Natalija Baranova) she appears out of her depth just as she does earlier when, walking home through a park at night, she stumbles across a small group of men and women indulging in group sex. And when Anna Maria talks to a bereaved husband living with a divorced woman, her easy judgementalism completely fails to engage with the couple. 'My wife died,' says the man, 'what was I supposed to do?'

Every wall in Anna Maria's home appears to have a Catholic icon or a crucifix with or without the Christ figure. Using stairlift and wheelchair, her husband goes round the house replacing a framed, bedside table image of Jesus with a photo of the couple that his wife has hidden in a drawer and uncovering a painting of a Middle Eastern location from underneath a drape. An increasingly petty marital dispute escalates; she puts the bedside Jesus back, he wheels around the house knocking crosses off the wall reaching them with his unfolded walking stick and she hides his wheelchair in the garage.

Underpinning all this is her refusal to sleep with her husband who eventually attempts to rape her, contriving to do so via the ruse of falling out of bed and getting her to help him back there. Her religious cocoon is highly dysfunctional; she flagellates herself for her sins and later kisses then masturbates with a crucifix bearing a Christ figure. Nothing is played for titillation or shock value, the acting is terrific (if anything, the remarkable turn by Maria Hofst√§tter is upstaged by the even more extraordinary performance by the non-professional Nabil Saleh) and the whole thing is all too horribly believable. Those looking for an argument to discredit Christianity can find it here, but this can equally well be read as exploring how genuine Christian faith in our current Western cultural context can go terribly, terribly wrong.