Our earth is a delicate, sensitive, living, breathing organism that needs the care and attention we have not given it. Taking it for granted and wishing to control nature have been the markers of modern life. However, ancestral knowledge always recognized the importance of maintenance of that ecosystem that supports our life. In Seed: The Untold Story, Directors Taggart Siegel and Jon Betz take us back to rethink that important relationship of communing with the earth that feeds us.
For 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. It 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. Melanie 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.
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.
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.