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— Robin Williams, Father’s Day

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Paradise: Faith is a film that goes out on a limb — way out. And while I’d have a hard time recommending it to a casual moviegoer, the adventurous should learn this director’s name: Ulrich Seidl.

Seidl is making a trilogy based on the three great theological virtues: Faith, Hope, and Love. Though he’s as creative in exploring a big theme, Seidl is no Krzysztof Kieslowski (who made films on the ideas of Liberty, Fraternity, Equality, and the Ten Commandments). Seidl is less polished that Kieslowski, more cynical, and at times downright transgressive. Paradise: Love is a story of sex tourism. Paradise: Hope is said to be about a weight-loss camp.

Faith, Certainty, and Tidiness

Anna a fascinating screen eccentric
Anna a fascinating screen eccentric

Paradise: Faith is about a self-flagellating missionary Catholic in Austria named Anna. Maria Hofstätter plays the role with aplomb and abandon. Her performance not only carries the film, it makes the film possible.

Seidl doesn’t use much dialogue to introduce us to Anna. Instead he shows snips of her life, usually framed squarely and awkwardly — first she’s operating a mammogram machine at work, then she’s washing her hands, then she’s eating lunch, then primly playing the piano alone in her home, singing a hymn. Even when she whips herself, it’s a fastidious ritual begun earnestly in front of a crucifix. The photography, editing and acting all suggest that Anna’s is a life of certainty, tidiness, and order. Her house is impeccably neat. Her hair is always perfectly done up in — not quite a bun, it’s more of a headboard.

Anna is the most fascinating character I’ve seen in a movie in recent memory. I know from experience that people like Anna exist, but seems impolite to take too much notice of their eccentricity. Maybe it’s just that people who make films prefer more popular, hip, outgoing characters, or at least characters whose obsessions that are more socially acceptable.

Paradise: Faith works — usually — because Seidl doesn’t attack Anna — usually. We live with her, and get to know her, even if we never completely understand her. She feels like a genuine human being — an outlier to be sure, but very real. The only time I felt like the movie might not be taking her seriously is when it showed her getting ... romantic ... with her crucifix. I thought I understood Anna well enough to disagree with Seidl on that point. Then again, the self-flagellation shows a woman who is very sensually minded, and perhaps she has a way to work the crucifix thing into her philosophy.

Converting Austria One Apartment at a Time

Anna’s calling is to convert Austria’s citizens and immigrants to Catholicism, and by God, she’s not going take “no” for an answer. On weekends she takes public transit to the next apartment on her list — you can imagine she has mapped out the city like a military general — and knocks on the door of the unsuspecting non-Catholics.

Here Seidl seems to be playing a game with his actors. Anna doesn’t always meet resistance, but she often does. Seidl seems to pit his actors against each other in a battle of wills, with salary awarded to the winner. One apartment has a childless couple futilely arguing theology with Anna. Another has a hoarder (Rene Rupnik) who is a Catholic, but who is not Catholic enough for Anna. She wants him to kneel and accept a statue of the Virgin Mary in his house, but he keeps finding polite excuses why he can’t do either.

Just when you begin to admire Anna as one of the most in-control film protagonists you’ve seen, Seidl shows us a moment of weakness. She comes across an orgy in a public park, and it sends her running in terror back to her home.

Faith in What?

A movie needs more than just characters, it needs plot. For Paradise: Faith the major development is that Anna’s long lost husband Nabil (Nabil Saleh) arrives, in a wheelchair. And he’s a Muslim. I won’t say much more; just that the development seems less gratuitous on screen than it sounds, even though it isn’t explained very fully.

In his treatment of Faith Seidl seems cynical, and maybe even aggressive, but not outright cruel. The things he tries are relevant to the theme and generally honest with the characters. The oddest scenes are challenging, but not quite hostile.

Seidl doesn’t feel like he’s claiming to have all the answers. He’s not unraveling a story like a master. He seems to be working things out on the screen. Not everything he tries, works, and some seemingly obvious things to try — how about the religious notion that wife should be obedient to her husband — don’t really get explored.

Nevertheless, Paradise: Faith is praiseworthy as a challenging, thought-provoking, slightly transgressive meditation on what “Faith” can mean.