Trilogies can come in different forms. There’s Hollywood’s favourite variety – two sequels to a hit, that organically (“The Godfather”) or inorganically (“Pirates of the Caribbean”) expand on the original film’s success. There’s the single story that’s too big to fit into a single film, like “The Apu Trilogy” or Peter Jackson’s “Lord of the Rings.” There’s the loosely thematically linked kind, like Park Chan-wook’s "vengeance trilogy," which share nothing but a central concern. And then there’s a trilogy like Krzysztof Kieślowski’s "Three Colors," which not only share a grand thematic tapestry, but also have crossovers between their characters.
And it’s this achievement, one of cinema’s finest, that Austrian director Ulrich Seidl (“Import/Export”) seems to have set out to replicate with his “Paradise” trilogy. Focusing on three sisters who are each at a turning point in their lives, the first film, “Paradise: Love,” which followed its protagonist, Teresa, on a sex tourism trip to Kenya, premiered at Cannes this year to a fair amount of acclaim, and part two, “Paradise: Faith,” is upon us, having premiered at the Venice Film Festival today. And while this writer wasn’t in Cannes to see the first installment, on the basis of the second, we’ll certainly be seeking it out.
This time around, the protagonist is Annamaria (Maria Hofstätter), a deeply Catholic woman who seems to belong to an Opus Dei-like sect, if the opening scene of her whipping herself topless is anything to go by. Annamaria takes a holiday from work in order to visit immigrants with a statue of the Virgin Mary in the hope of converting them, but she's interrupted by the return of her husband Nabil (Nabil Saleh), an Egyptian Muslim who’s been absent for two years since an accident caused him to become a paraplegic, and her to take up her faith. Forced to live together again, the two rapidly come into conflict, particularly as Annamaria isn’t just besotted by her faith, but with Jesus himself…
Using the same script-free approach and mix of pros and first-time actors (this is Saleh’s first screen role, and he does an excellent job in it) that’s marked his work so far, it’s confrontational, abrasive stuff, both in form and content. Seidl almost entirely uses languid, symmetrical, static tableaus of shots, the only movement coming when he goes handheld for Annamaria’s visits to the immigrant community, and it’s the kind of stark, European feel that could well alienate some.
And if they make it past the style, they may yet have objections to the content: Annamaria stumbles across an orgy in the park, featuring real penetrative sex, while there’s one scene later featuring religious imagery that would have the moral majority up in arms if there was ever any chance of them seeing it (not that that’s stopped them, historically).
And yet as button-pushing as the film is, it also proved, to us at least, extremely funny. The set up – Catholic woman and her disabled Muslim husband living together! – could almost be a twisted sitcom pitch, and Seidl wrings plenty of laughs out of the escalating conflict between Annamaria and Nabil; she flings holy water on him when he sleeps, he takes down all the crosses in the house with his walking stick. We’ll admit that you probably have to be there – Seidl’s take-your-time pacing is what sells many of these moments, most notably Annamaria’s attempt to get an elderly man to pray with her in the room in which his mother died. Again, you sort of had to be there.
Which is not to say that it’s an easy watch. Just as you start to empathize a little more with the central duo, Seidl pulls the rug out from under you, and any time the characters threaten to hit a moment of self-realization, they pull right back from it again. But for all its abrasiveness, the film’s also capable of real tenderness. There’s clearly real love in there somewhere between the two, for all the enmity they have now, as demonstrated in a lovely moment where Annamaria trims Nabil’s nails in the bath.
Admittedly, the idea of examining the hypocrisies of the devout is sort of low-hanging fruit, and it starts going around in circles a bit in the mid-section (not coincidentally, around the time that Nabil is seen literally going around in circles in his wheelchair). But the film was mostly a very pleasant surprise, and one that contains some of the most memorable moments of film we’ve seen this year, not least a late confrontation between Annamaria and a drunken Russian woman (a firebrand performance from “Import/Export” vet Natalija Baranova). We for one will certainly be looking forward to catching up on the first part of Seidl’s trilogy, and completing it with 2013’s “Paradise: Hope.” [B+]