Coming at us in sections like baby-boomer stations of the cross, Ulrich Seidl’s Dantean triptych Paradise is inarguably one of the year’s big moviehouse shitstorms, and appropriately this second panel, coming after Love‘s bruising tropical-tourism anti-daydream, doesn’t spare the rod. As you’d expect, Faith takes the Divine Comedy fixtures head-on—the first thing we see is a plump middle-aged hausfrau kneel before a crucifix in a closed room, beseech Christ for forgiveness, strip to the waist, and then furiously flog herself with a metal-tipped cat-o’-nine-tails.
This is Anna Maria (veteran character actress Maria Hofstätter), a mammography technician by day and the fussy neighbor we saw cat-sitting for the vacationing protagonist of Love. But mostly Anna Maria is a catastrophic, cilice-wearing über-Catholic, pinched and paranoid and living tidily alone. All three Paradise films focus on their heroines when on vacation, and Anna Maria’s holiday mostly comprises hefting a lawn madonna into Vienna’s scrubbier tenements and evangelizing door to door.
Her time insisting on piety and prayer in other people’s apartments has its own damnation arc, from funny-crazy to over-her-head violent. She meets her Waterloo with a drunken Russian woman ready to rumble over her next beer, but perhaps the film’s most fascinating tightrope walk is Anna Maria’s invasion of a flat occupied by a disturbed, shut-in hoarder wearing only black briefs and still mourning his long-dead mother—a situation she gamely tries to navigate.
But her tribulation is really at home—with no warning, a paraplegic Arab man (Nabil Saleh) appears on her couch, and though they obviously have a past, Seidl waits until the movie’s almost half over before filling the story in. With just one gesture we realize they’re an estranged husband and wife, and Anna Maria’s whole-hog Christ obsession is her remade self, an attempt to erase the past. Sharing a bed is out of the question—Anna Maria only has eyes for Jesus, and her shameful sexuality emerges only for masturbatory intimacy with her favorite mega-crucifix.
As usual, Seidl goes where we hope he won’t (there’s even a catalyzing, if grim, orgy Anna Maria finds in the park at night). His signature camera style—full-frontal distance with three walls showing, watching the ordeal till it hurts—has a particular icon-tableau resonance under the circumstances. The filmmaker has always skirted the edge of exploitation and misogynist cruelty, but by placing their beleaguered women at center stage, the Paradise films acquire enormous payloads of humanity and depth. Anna Maria begins as a regressive caricature (she gauges her self-punishment periods with an egg timer), but through the physical humiliations and flagellation and battles with her emasculated husband’s awakening Islamic ire, she emerges in four full dimensions, a woman at odds with the world and in love with an illusion. Though we’re never allowed a close-up, Hofstätter’s performance comes off as an unselfconscious tour de force, painfully real and culturally lost.
Like the previous film’s obese Miss Lonelyhearts, Anna Maria is not a character filmmakers have ever cared to spend much time with, and the grind of these women’s marginality remains the trilogy’s main course. (Hope, coming in a few months, compounds the theme further, if, well, a little hopefully.) Where Paradise lies in Seidl’s view is still a mystery—it’s surely not in the ‘burbs of contemporary Vienna any more than it was on the beaches of Kenya. The questionable, conflicted currencies of love and faith aren’t as mysterious.