I’ve been in love a few times, and I imagine I’ve been loved a few times as well. Sometimes the feeling wasn’t mutual. That’s the way it is sometimes. With belief, it’s a different story: I am not really a religious person. The things I believe don’t believe back in me. This is a suspicion, not a complaint: Belief seems to be such a one-sided affair.
This explains already why I had more difficulty in understanding Ulrich Seidl’s Paradise: Faith, the middle film of his Paradise trilogy. There are other problems with this installment, but we’ll come to that eventually.
This film’s protagonist is Anna, Teresa’s sister. She is devoutly Catholic, and it is her and her bible group’s sworn objective to make Austria wholly Catholic again. Anna herself is convinced that the world is full of sex-obsessed people, and she asks that they be forgiven by whipping her own naked upper body with a whip while kneeling in front of her crucifix in a cheerless room in her house. Then she thanks her savior for the chastisement. Sometimes she goes as far as to tie a belt with iron thorns around her waist and make rounds through her flat on her knees while praying, and the kitchen timer telling her when to stop. She works as a radiologist’s assistant, but during her holiday, she goes from door to door in run-down apartment complexes and tries to convert people. She doesn’t stop at anything – there is a family of foreigners, non-Christians, of which only the eldest daughter speaks German. The whole family kneels in front of the Mother Mary statue. Anna can be very convincing.
One evening she comes home, and a Muslim is sitting on her living-room sofa. This is Nabil. They seem to know each other. It will later transpire that this is Anna’s husband. To Anna’s mind, this not at all a contradiction to her Catholic zeal – it is simply a test of her faith. She is happy to be married to her pet project, and she thinks it’s an excellent thing that two years ago, her husband had an accident and is now in a wheelchair – if only Nabil could see that true faith has entered her life that way.
Nabil, of course, is less delighted about his situation. He can no longer have sex with her, which is what Anna considers the right path: no sex, but a test of faith instead. Nabil thinks that a wife must serve her husband in all walks of life, and Anna agrees – except that Nabil asks for intimacy and a little more of her time. He is her project and is not supposed to develop human needs, and particularly not such disgusting ones like sex. Nabil’s every attempt is thwarted by Anna; although she can brush him off easily, she must bear his presence because her faith tells her to. Turn the other cheek. She politely refuses him at first, but when he insists, they trade blows. He wants sex he probably cannot have, she has a country to convert. This relationship will end badly.
One night, again on her way home from trying to convert people, Anna’s greatest conviction seems to become real in her own neighbourhood. She walks past a public park and sees a dozen people involved in a gangbang. She knows she must interfere, but she cannot, and while not really consciously aroused, she must become aware of her own suppressed sexuality. Nabil asking her to sleep in the same bed and those gangbangers entail the same horror to Anna: the world is really only after one thing. It is here that Seidl’s strictly geometrical, static camera lets go and adopts Anna’s point of view. There is a possibility that Anna might only imagine the orgy. There is very subtle irony here: Anna is the one person who cannot tell whether she imagines the whole thing or not because for her, this was bound to happen. She staggers back home, utterly shocked, but proven right.
Anna’s zeal remained impenetrable to me. This movie must play like a horror flick to some Catholic audiences. To me, a former Protestant, Anna is very far from my own walk of life. That’s not to say that I don’t know about being passionate about something, way more passionate than is good for me. I understand obsession. I utterly empathize with trying to fulfill that passion, but I also empathize with the despair of not getting any rest about being passionate all of the time. I seem to be able to stop before I damage myself or others; for Anna, it’s all or nothing. She has subscribed to her faith, and if that involves more than she can take, so be it. It’s God’s will. She is so far out there that I can hardly see her. The actress playing her, Maria Hofstätter, disappears completely in her role. She is Austrian, friendly, with a quick smile. There is nothing in Anna of her.
Back at home, there is undeclared war. Nabil takes down her crucifixes, asks to watch TV, listens to Islamic prayer tapes and even puts a framed photograph of their wedding on her nightstand. He insults her faith and asks her, not to convert to Islam, but simply to find a better religion. He has a point, of course, although if you look past the object of her obsession, religion is not Anna’s problem. She enters a similar situation as her sister Teresa: She might still love Jesus, but there are moments when she despises her faith, but she cannot not believe. She is hard-wired that way, and there is no escape. The movie ends with Anna not whipping herself for a change, but whipping the crucifix on the wall.