What’s impressive and surprising about “Paradise: Faith” is how it takes a sensational premise (a lonely woman with an erotic fixation with Jesus) and does not use it for cheap shock value or as a vicious attack on Catholicism. In fact, it’s not really tawdry or sleazy at all- it, like it’s desperate heroine, just is. I have not seen the first movie in the trilogy, the thematically linked “Paradise: Love,” but after this movie I probably will.
Instead of building contempt and hatred for it’s fanatically religious protagonist, it develops it so that we feel a mix of curiosity and pity for strange, pious Anna-Maria (excellently played by Maria Hofstätter,) but never disgust or rage. She needs her faith desperately, as a human being needs food or oxygen.
A single woman in her mid-50’s, Anna-Maria works as a X-Ray Technician and spends her summers proselytizing the neighbors and no doubt making herself quite unpopular in her town in Austria. Anna-Maria is painfully sexually repressed and endures self-inflicted punishments for her unchaste thoughts. She fancies Jesus quite a bit and finds herself attracted to his gentle strength and kindness.
Everything abruptly changes when Anna Maria’s Arabic, paraplegic husband Nabil (Nabil Saleh) returns after a long, unexplained absence. Saleh is quite good too, developing his character from merely an annoyance to a cruel misogynist who spits on Anna Maria and mocks her passionate devotion to God. Nabil wants Anna Maria to ‘fulfill her duties as a wife’ and make love to him, but Anna Maria’s only love now is God.
What follows is a battle of wills- between the fanatical Anna Maria and the stubborn Nabil. No love and friendship comes out of this conflict- only violence and bitterness. Meanwhile Anna Maria copes with her impending crisis of faith and her complex feelings for her savior.
“Paradise: Faith” is similar to the films of Michael Haneke in style- cold, unbiased, virtually devoid of music and littered with long takes. It interested me quite a bit. I hate the dumbing-down of the Christian in Hollywood, as even the craziest is a human being with complex motivations and belief system.
The film doesn’t give us a pat ending or anyone worth cheering for, and that’s just fine- Anna Maria is greeted with mixed reactions from her herd of endangered souls. No one wins, no one ‘proves her wrong,’ and there are no revelations or messages except for this- crazy-devout religion can be a temporary aid for something deeper- unbearable loneliness, repression or isolation. Sometimes someone who seems proselytizing or arrogant is simply lonelier.
Maria Hofstätter is just perfect as Anna Maria, and you can completely believe that she is this person, who she plays with total sincerity. It is interesting to see her try to ‘save’ the souls of her fellow man, and the way they react to what could be interpreted as a attempt to connect or or just pure patronization. An essential art-house film for fans of the genre.