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.)

posterThe Paradise trilogy by Ulrich Seidl continues with another film featuring a raw look at social hypocrisy. However, where Paradise: Love put the lens on “love” and money in the post-colonial world, Paradise: Faith examines “faith” and its social constructs gasping for relevance in a dominating secular world, a rather easy target. Seidl has chosen to mock religious devotion from a safe and easy distance. He trains his lens on a woman who lives a life of seeming piety in Austria while loving Jesus Christ a tad too much for comfort.

The film follows the sister of the last film’s protagonist. Anna Maria (Maria Hofstätter) has decided to spend her vacation days from work as a medical assistant visiting the homes of neighbors to spread the Word of Christ. She is part of a group of missionaries (no priest in sight) seeking to make Austria a Catholic country. Her door-to-door visits never go smoothly, from having to explain the Stations of the Cross to a family passively going through the motions to an argumentative older couple “living in sin” because they are unmarried (he’s a widower while she is divorced). Then, after another day of rather fruitless missions, Anna Maria’s paraplegic Muslim husband Nabil (Nabil Saleh) shows up on her couch with a big grin on his face.

If her righteous force-feeding of religion unto her neighbors does not provide enough conflict, the battles that will ensue between these two, along with the baggage of their relationship, heightens the film’s slow-burning tension further. Paradise_Faith_3_Maria_HofstätterThen there are those hints of displaced affection she seems to show her crucifix and portraits of Jesus. “You are the most handsome man,” she says planting a kiss of a framed icon at her bedside before turning out the lights. “I love you, Jesus.”

The sexuality that crops up in Paradise Faith is more complex and sometimes elusive compared with the overt sexuality presented in extended scenes in Paradise Love. However, as in the last film, many may find the moments of sexuality quite creepy. The difference in this new film comes from the faux-chaste quality that festers below the surface of Anna Maria’s love of Jesus. The goodnight kiss only begins to reveal just how in love she is with her dreamboat, Christ Almighty.

As in his earlier film, Seidl keeps the camera in a static position that hardly moves, giving the film a cold, voyeuristic quality. He also offers no score beyond Anna Maria singing hymns alone to herself on a synthesizer set to billowing organ mode. When she’s at the instrument, Seidl frames her from behind. Throughout much of the film, he presents her from the back and at a distance, only heightening a rather judgmental view on this woman. Paradise_Faith_2_Maria_HofstätterFurthering the alienation is her unique up-do in a tight bun at the top of her head. Anna Maria is presented as a woman out of touch. It can be seen in her interactions with others outside her Catholic Legion. From her sex-starved husband, who at one point rolls around Anna Maria’s home rampaging against every religious icon he can reach with his extending cane, to a group of sexual deviants, who may include the mentally disabled, which she stumbles across in the park one night engaged in group sex, everyone seems to undermine her. She is alone.

Because she is alone (besides the unknown fellow followers who gather at her home for group prayers that are far from Catholic tradition and closer to fanaticism) the film falters a bit from the social critique offered by the more compelling Paradise: Love. Paradise_Faith_7_Nabil_SalehThere’s a sense of superiority looking down on these Catholic and Muslim characters fighting against and for their primal urges that does not reach the level of revelation achieved in the more stark Paradise: Love. The attempt to reach at larger statements is revealed in the overly chatty dialogue and the heightened amounts of editing.

Meanwhile, sexuality seems the key undertone of all the film’s arguments, not any sense of faith. Sex seems implied as an inescapable essence of being, damn religion. In fact, if the film’s opening scene of Anna Maria kneeling before a crucifix and praying to be freed of carnal temptation and then dropping the top of her dress to violently lash her back more than a dozen times does not reveal her as a vessel of sexual repression then the closing scene will certainly deliver that point. But to what end? Faith offers a bigger world than organized religion, especially without the guidance of a priest. Even Karl Marx was conflicted over it, despite his widely cited quote that “religion was … the opiate of the masses.” With Paradise: Faith, Seidl has defanged religion to an extent that it becomes an all too easy joke.

Thematic criticism aside, Seidl remains an efficient storyteller who can contain transcendent moments utilizing rather efficient cinematic techniques. Paradise_Faith_6_Nabil_Saleh_Maria_HofstätterThe most brilliant coup of this film is how Seidl is able to load up Anna Maria’s actions with the baggage of her unseen past. Simple statements like telling Nabil how she had sacrificed her religion for him and rediscovered it after their separation loads her actions with the implication of their history, which never makes its presence known beyond implication. The film’s raw acting and efficient dialogue breaths exquisite life into the couple’s intense scenes together. There’s potency in the film’s storytelling that does not rely on easy tropes like contrasting flashbacks to inform current moments.

Seidl has a rather confident sense of cinema that he expertly strips to its raw center. But the deeper critique of society is missing from this second installment of the Paradise Trilogy. Religion is too easy a target for a secular European country like Austria. It almost feels like a cop-out. Paradise_Faith_5I agree with Seidl that we need not the specter of the wrath of Hell or the reward of Heaven to do unto others as you would have them do unto you. But the only one trapped in this belief is the film’s protagonist who seems somewhat deranged by her fanaticism. Instead of noting an ill in the larger society, as it seemed so interminably mixed in the more interesting world of Paradise: Love, placing the weight of the critique on one unreliable protagonist cuts the bite out of the film’s theme.

The personal drama in the film unfurls potently, and taken as a sad intimate drama, the film works and earns a rather pitiful, ironic finale. Maybe the specter of power over the individual lies within the icons Anna Maria has placed all over her home, but their destruction by Nabil does little to reduce this hold on her. Even if it rings rather hollow, this second film in the Paradise Trilogy will please fans of the first installment, as all of Seidl’s elemental skills inhabit the screen. Having noted that, I look forward to the third chapter in the trilogy, Paradise: Hope, which follows Anna Maria’s niece on her vacation.

Hans Morgenstern

Paradise: Faith runs 120 minutes, is in German with English subtitles and is unrated (sexuality seems to present itself as the film’s crux in irony so expect much of it). It opens at the Miami Beach Cinematheque this Friday, Aug. 30, which provided an on-line screener preview for the purposes of this review. An encore presentation of the first part of the trilogy, Paradise: Love, will also screen during the week of Paradise: Faith at MBC (Read my review of Part 1: Film Review: ‘Paradise: Love’ peels away layers perpetuated by Disney gloss of post-colonial times). The trilogy continues at MBC with Paradise: Hope (about the daughter’s “vacation”) sometime in October. 

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

ParadiseLoveposterWA_edited-1The first part in what is bound to be a difficult if powerful trilogy to sit through, Ulrich Seidl’s Paradise: Love patiently and subtly unfurls as a stark critique on colonialism and the formative effects it perpetuates. Filled with lots of casual nudity of pallid middle-aged, often over-weight Austrian women on holiday in Kenya seeking to enjoy young, dark, virile native men, the film has a raw human quality that is as visceral as it is shameful in its critique of a society that has neglected its responsibilities for its decimation of indigenous culture. What makes the film both so hard to watch and important to experience is its flagrant shaming of an ignorant middle class culture implicated in its ravenous apathy to consume, as it perpetuates its dominance in a capitalist world ruled by money and class systems. Seidl is Pasolini with a conscience.

The drama of Paradise: Love unfolds patiently and gradually reveals a humanism to all its characters that resonates beyond the film in the grand scheme of things. The most outstanding shots are Seidl’s brilliantly composed wide shots. They recall Wes Anderson in their busy quality and the dimension they add to characters. However, the tone could not be more different. The vintage wear and irony is transformed from precious to critical. There is humor, melancholy and grim undertones in the image of the rotund Teresa (a casually fearless Margarete Tiesel) reclining in her hotel bed in sheer, unmatched underwear below a painting of a primitively drawn leopard hanging out on a tree branch. Mosquito net curtains frame each side; the walls and tile floor, exude a history in their grimy white color.

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When Teresa arrives to the resort hotel on a white bus labeled “Comfort Safari” after driving past a shanty-like town, she is greeted to a modest row of four African women in zebra-print wrap dresses singing a song in their language with the refrain “Hakuna Matata,” with the accent on the last syllable. It stands out in contrast to the children’s ditty from Disney’s the Lion King, which emphasized the first syllable of the last word. In fact, the phrase, which translates to “no problem” (the once long-standing slogan to entice tourists to Jamaica) appears constantly in the film. By extension, beyond the critique of post-colonial apathy, the film implicates Disney for its co-opting of culture into a cartoonish commodity constantly marketed to the most vulnerable to commercialism: children.

It’s casual consumers eating up culture via corporations like Disney presenting experiences, that this film is targeting. That’s not to say people who buy tickets to Disney movies and theme parks or its toys, clothes, games and books are indecent people. They only want to have fun. Early in the film we meet Teresa as a woman who seems stuck in a rut but rather resigned to her position and status. Paradise Love womenShe chaperons a large group of mentally disabled to a day at a fair and has a teenager who would rather live on her cellphone screen than care for the state of her room. Seidl quickly sets his grandiose ironic tone, lingering for long takes on the contorted faces of the mal-developed adults in bumper cars. The sounds of their squeals and grunts echo in the ride and dominate the soundtrack. There is no music. If it’s uncomfortable, it is so by design and implication.

Teresa then struggles to get her overweight daughter out of her room plastered in posters of teen idols. She drops her at a relative’s house, and takes a selfie of the trio outside the home. She waves bye-bye, and she’s off to an adventure as a “sugar mama” to the locals in Kenya. She’s a rather insignificant person who treats people with a resigned decency than most are capable of, which adds to the gradually revealed and utterly horrific behavior toward the indigenous people of Kenya who work at the resort and stand on the other side of a short fence made of ropes on the beach or ride in circles on scooters on the other side of the resort’s guard gates.

The performances are brilliant in their stark and simple frankness. There are no lingering close ups that pander to the viewer’s emotional connection for a staged sympathy. Paradise Love 2When the 50-year-old hausfrau dishes out the shillings to the men who promise to protect her from those peddling trinkets on the beach or the street, there is also a sense that this woman only wants to be loved. As she gets deeper into it, she eats up the drama that comes when she chooses one man over another and then goes back again to another man, even if it’s all seemingly paid for.

All the while, the drama within the frame features scenes that are the epitome of ironic discomfort from the flagrant sexuality to the undertone of white material indulgence. It plays as much with the knowledge of the viewer as well as his or her conscience, transmitting comedy and tragedy at once in its statement of culpability. Paradise: Love is far from escapist cinema, but it is important cinema. In fact, very few films slap the viewer into looking at reality with such harsh yet subtle scenes. There is no cheap violence or overripe sexuality. This is raw and distant yet involving. Seidl is saying, “look,” with a soft, assured, even-toned voice, “this is you.”

Hans Morgenstern

Paradise: Love runs 120 minutes, is in English and German with English subtitles and is unrated (the film features lots of frank, full-frontal sexuality). It opens at the Miami Beach Cinematheque this Friday, May 24, which provided a DVD screener for the purposes of this review. The trilogy continues at MBC with Paradise: Faith (about the sister’s “vacation”) in July August and Paradise: Hope (about the daughter’s “vacation”) in October.

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