poster artFor his final film in the “Paradise Trilogy,” Paradise: Hope, the most stunning aspect of director Ulrich Seidl’s fifth feature film is that he shows restraint. Normally exploring the depths of discomfort, Seidl now reveals he can finesse the edges of drawn out, shocking imagery with a sense of dread and foreboding and turn it on its head. After exploring frank sexual tourism in Kenya with divorcee Teresa (Margarete Tiesel) in Paradise: Love and literal religious icon-loving with Teresa’s sister Anna Maria (Maria Hofstätter) in Paradise: Faith, Seidl delves into the blossoming womanhood of Teresa’s daughter Melanie (Melanie Lenz) at a weight loss camp in Paradise: Hope.

As the “Paradise Trilogy” comes together with this final entry, connections are revealed as merely tangential, as they focus on these different stories of closely-related women. Those looking for the big picture need to look beyond their relationship, as the three hardly have a chance to connect with one another during the films, which the director had first intended to offer as one large movie. The larger picture seems to concern itself with humanism and how it has lost its way as consciousness tries to define people’s relationship with nature. More specifically, the films focus on how women’s sexual nature has been warped by social constructs. This trio of women is both down-to-earth but long-suffering a loss with their connection to nature.

Paradise: Hope opens with a stark, simple image, Melanie sits nearly motionless on a couch staring at her smart phone. The camera lingers so long it almost appears as if this is a still image. Paradies_HoffnungIt speaks to her obese form, and there’s little surprise when Anna Maria takes her to a government-run camp for overweight children. In keeping with a familiar lack of connection, the two hardly talk beyond “let’s go” and “good-bye.” Also, try as she might, Melanie cannot seem to get a hold of her mother during scant phone time at the camp. She is on her own.

Though she gets on well with her roommates at the institution, the divide between adults and these young teenagers who seem to average 13 in age, could not be more pronounced. A coach (Michael Thomas) has them jog circles around him as he cracks an imaginary whip. He also has them hang from poles by their arms, but as soon as he turns his back or whenever he’s not looking, the children sneak in resting periods by standing on lower poles. No one seems to care about the children’s efforts. Inevitably, they act out, partying in their rooms, stealing food from the kitchen and Melanie and one of her new friends even steal away for a drunken night on the town.

They are always caught, however, and punishment ranges from the trainer forcing them to stand outside their rooms with arms raised for long periods of time, as he sits on a chair in the hallway or simply yelling at them. Paradies_Hoffnung_4Melanie does reach out to the camp’s doctor (Joseph Lorenz), repeatedly complaining about stomach pains. Visits to the doctor’s office inch toward creepy, as he shares his stethoscope, at one point even taking off his own shirt to have her listen to his heart. The relationship features many edgy encounters that keep intentions and thoughts pregnant with possibilities and suspicion. But that’s as awkward as Seidl takes it with this capper to a trilogy that, in its first two movies, seemed to relish in making the audience uncomfortable.

Seidl, like his other films, keeps the camera steady and distant and frames shots with cold symmetry. In contrast, the children, played warmly and genuinely by courageous non-actors, are allowed to be children, albeit children coming to their sexually awakening. They rely on one another, as they explore their new feelings and speak frankly and messily about it. Meanwhile, the adults stifle this natural curiosity. In the case of the doctor with Melanie, they sometimes only add to the confusion.

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For all of his immaculately composed, symmetrical shots, Paradise: Hope rises above Seidl’s other films. Revelation arrives in the first beautiful shot of the three films, and it happens out in nature. Its also filled with a primal sense of dread while recalling a now archetypal fairy tale. It’s a brilliant moment that also reveals the pure sense of humanity we have so longed for from this trilogy. It makes for an audacious final note for a series of movies that seemed to relish in shaking up the viewer. That Seidl reveals such a sense of poetry beyond what seemed to be a tendency to shock with a well-informed sense of social consciousness speaks to his profound talents as a filmmaker.

Hans Morgenstern

Paradise: Hope runs 92 minutes, is in German with English subtitles and is unrated (the film features frank talk of sexuality and foreboding moments of it). It opens at the Miami Beach Cinematheque this Friday, Oct. 25, which provided a DVD screener for the purposes of this review. Reviews for Paradise: Love and Paradise: Faith can be found here and here. For screening dates in other parts of the U.S., contact the U.S. Distributor, Strand Releasing.

(Copyright 2013 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)

museum_hours smallIn the 1958 comedy by Ronald Neame, the Horse’s Mouth, the film’s main character, an artist named Gulley Jimson, portrayed as equal parts guru and buffoon by Alec Guinness, may well be mad or have unlocked the door to artistic brilliance. He tells an acolyte too impatient to spend some time looking at a painting: “Thirty seconds of revelation is worth a million years of know-nothings.”

It makes for an apt commentary more than ever in today’s second-screen mentality when it comes to media consumption. That’s why Jem Cohen’s feature film Museum Hours feels like such a miracle, and the revelations arrive aplenty and effortlessly. He places two rather distinct characters inside the Kunsthistorisches Art Museum in Vienna. Johann (Bobby Sommer) is a security guard who has lived his life to fuller degrees than most ever will (he was once a disco and punk rock road manager and now enjoys the quiet contemplation the museum job offers him). Anne (Mary Margaret O’Hara) is a Canadian visitor who distracts herself from the weight of concern for a cousin in a coma lying in a hospital bed by visiting the nearby art museum.

The two meet inside Johann’s world of the museum. He is drawn to her for her repeat visits and something more intangible, he admits in an ever-present voice-over. It’s not a sexual attraction, as he is gay, and the actors’ aged, rugged features are so unglamorous and real they subvert any pretense of the superficial sort of romance Hollywood loves to pedal to the masses. With inevitable death hovering over their visits in the form of Anne’s cousin, they trade life stories. Anne worries about “over-sharing” and “prying” while Johann seems happy revealing his past with casual, fulfilled matter-of-factness. A respectful concern and reminder of the cousin constantly appears in their exchanges. And then there’s the art world.

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Cohen does several inspired things with his film that meld art and life like a hand fits a glove. The most noticeable are the conversations on the pieces by the characters. Often, Johann offers his contemplation on the pieces in voice over. Some of it, however, is resigned to the patrons, like the children and teenagers who are not merely judged for their short-attention span but also appreciated for their sincere, visceral reactions to the art, even if it only lasts a few seconds.

Along with extreme close-ups of the art that reveal not only the age of the pieces but also accidental stains and the light reflected off the pieces that highlight texture, Johann also plays games to rediscover pieces he has spent so many hours with, like the dense pieces by Bruegel the Elder. Looking at the many tiny characters that form larger statements on religion, society and the politics of the time from whence these works came he finds a frying pan sticking out of one character’s head, and then he’s off counting all the eggs that appear in the paintings at the museum. On a wider level, he notes the state of the eggs and the context their state means within the stories of the paintings.

Cohen even weaves the bigger presence of life and death with art during a scene where Johann joins Anne at the bedside of her cousin. MH_Mary Margaret O'HaraAnne asks Johann to describe a religious painting to try to get a rise out of her unconscious cousin, who Anne describes as an agnostic. His choice of words melds the real and the divine in a way that remains respectful to the work while also veering away from anything that would have possibly upset anyone who might question a reductive presence of God in this world. It’s an ingenious and subtle moment of transcendentalism.

The director also craftily fills his film with exterior montage sequences of a wintry Vienna that sometimes sneak in a few details of the paintings inside the museum. Birds perched on naked trees flutter away and there’s a cut to a frozen blackbird on a gray branch against an overcast sky inserted in between that is clearly a painting. MH_Cathedral SquareThere are also sequences of landscapes and details of rubbish in the snow. The camera also performs wonders inside the museum with shallow focus on artifacts from Egypt and other long-gone civilizations that appreciate the worn, decaying quality of the work as much as the work itself. Life and art and the fleeting quality of it all, it’s all to be appreciated, the director seems to state.

One of the most amusing elements Cohen employs to meld art and life include some rather candid moments that reveal actors slipping out of character for moments that feel so organic, many may miss these moments, as they subtly break the fourth wall of cinema. In one scene, the film is cut a split second later showing a character turning from serious, almost belabored concentration in her role as an observer of art, and then turning relaxed, as if the director has already called “cut.” It melds beautifully in a film about art taken out of original context in history and placed on display. There are also a couple of moments with Johann where he sounds boisterous or seems more relaxed, behind the walls of the museum, in a locker room and a cafeteria, that may as well have been filmed during downtime from the actual shoot. The layers of art and life exposed as both warm and serious and visceral last for mere seconds but have profound effects that echo throughout this decidedly un-self-conscious film.

Hans Morgenstern

Museum Hours runs 107 minutes, is in German and English with English subtitles and is not rated (any good art film has nudity, though). It opened Friday in the South Florida area at the Miami Beach Cinematheque, which invited me to a preview screening for the purposes of this review. It has already opened in some theaters across the US and others will follow. For a full list of screening dates, visit the film’s official website: here (that’s a hotlink).

(Copyright 2013 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)

Get intimate with death and realize life. This is the simple but profound notion that fuels the quiet drama of Atmen (Breathing). In the debut feature film both written and directed by the actor Karl Markovics, 18-year-old Roman Kogler (Thomas Schubert) finds a way to renew his life by taking a job as an undertaker. Though a teenager, Roman is coming up from a long way down and will have a long way to go by the time the curtains close on this intimate drama from Austria. Markovics does not sentimentalize coming-of-age but only reveals a load of baggage that illuminates the difficulties of growing up. With the film’s matter-of-fact tone on some extreme subject matter, it’s a meditation on the encounter with the real few can fathom, much less a boy entering adulthood.

At the heart of Breathing stands a troubled child abandoned by his mother at infancy, who would grow up to kill a man at the age of 14. This is not your typical teenage coming-of-age movie. Serving the tail end of his sentence and in search of a job, Roman needs something beyond  a love affair to help him come to his “awakening.” The closest thing to romance for Roman arrives during a chance encounter on a train car with a pretty young, flirtatious tourist (Luna Mijovic), a scene that serves to highlight the innocence lost with subtle pathos. He is on his way back to detention one evening after he starts work in the body collection and transportation business. Their “contact” is reduced to a final glance through the glass of the train’s window when she dons a glove he forgot in the car and waves him farewell.

Roman wanders through life in isolation. Reflecting this sense are neatly framed shots by the experienced cinematographer Martin Gschlacht that capture the action with an appropriate clinical distance, even during close-up reaction shots. The quiet swelling orchestral score by Herbert Tucmandl also highlights Roman’s solitary, discreet suffering. The storytelling stays true to the character and never cops out. Roman is locked in a bedroom at a juvenile detention center and haunts the facility as an outcast among the other boys at the place. The only interaction they offer are curious glances and whispered conversations. The teen seems to find solace at the bottom of a swimming pool. He appears to meditate as he holds his breath while hovering, facedown at the bottom of the pool on more than one occasion in the film.

He speaks of his pain to no one. Though he sometimes acts out passive aggressively, he puts up with a nagging man who seems to be his foster-father. When Roman takes the job of undertaker, his co-workers do not ease him into the task of handling corpses. These are not the morticians who console family members one might expect. These are callous, longshoremen-types who collect fresh bodies at homes or crime scenes because it’s their job. When Roman responds to an ad for the work, Rudolf Kienast (Georg Friedrich), a co-worker who grudgingly takes him under his wing with little affection, comments there could be so many other things to do at 18.

However, the only way back to life for Roman seems to be via this job in death. He never treats the bodies with morbid interest. Newcomer Schubert plays Roman with a quiet purpose. He looks upon the dead bodies with respect and seems to behold something subtly awe-inspiring. His quiet mannerisms reveal an awareness of the sublime encounter with finality provided by these lifeless vessels of flesh. In contrast, his co-workers have gone past any reverence for the deceased, handling them like meat and bones.

In an early scene on the job, Roman cannot bring himself to touch the body of an old woman who lies prostrate on her living room floor. “What good is having children if, in the end, you die alone anyway?” says the deceased’s daughter (Stephanie Taussig). She is overheard from another room, as she prefers to not even look at the body. With Breathing, Markovics rattles awake life by placing his characters close to death in all its mundane perversity. It gives all the more reason for Roman to connect with the person who gave him life, and the relationship between child and mother is gradually revealed as something profound to Roman.

When confronted with the corpse of a young woman with his same last name, he wonders if it is his mother. Noticing his reaction, one of his co-workers comments, “What’s the matter? Never seen a naked lady before?” But this is a moment of awakening for Roman, and it marks the start of his quest to connect with woman who brought him into the world. Karin Lischka plays his young mother with detached cool. When he asks her why did she decide to give him up. She states, “It was the best thing I did in my life.” It marks a potent moment that will force Roman to take some responsibility.

This boy has no mother and will need to face that to grow up. Roman’s life is not a bag of fanciful quirks but a load of baggage that illuminates the difficulty of his character’s path in life. In the end, Markovics does not offer pat redemption for Roman. Instead, he only offers a few small moments to give the viewer enough air to see some potential for Roman’s future. Via death, life is revealed as a messy affair and Markovics never sells the notion short, showing this actor-turned-director has a wise sense of cinematic storytelling and a bright future in smart filmmaking.

Hans Morgenstern

Trailer (Note: NSFW in the US):

Breathing is not rated (expect naked corpses) is in German with English subtitles and runs 94 min. It premieres exclusively in South Florida this Friday, Oct. 12, at the Miami Beach Cinematheque. Kino Lorber provided a DVD screener for the purposes of this review. It may already be playing in your city or coming soon. Jump through this link for more locations.

Update: I have a contest going for two free tickets to this movie at the Miami Beach Cinematheque. “Like” the Facebook page for “Independent Ethos” via the button in the column to your right to enter and read details.

(Copyright 2012 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)