Joshua Reviews Ulrich Seidl’s Paradise: Faith [Theatrical Review]

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While trilogies, today, come seemingly every weekend, very few are more than just franchises with a penchant for milking as many projects out of its cast and crew and money out of its public as humanly possible (the Fast And Furious franchise notwithstanding as each film has seemingly gotten better every time out). There are occasionally the “forced” trilogies like Edgar Wright’s “Three Flavours Cornetto” Trilogy or the thematically relevant threesome like Park Chan-Wook’s Vengeance trilogy, and yet, there are few quite like Ulrich Seidl’s Paradise threesome.

Following the story of three sisters and itself subtitled after the three theological virtues, Seidl’s films have become something entirely their own. Paradise: Love arrived in theaters early this year after a festival run last year, and now its second film, Paradise: Faith has followed suit, but instead of being simply a plodding mess of a drama, Seidl’s follow up is something darkly comedic and beautifully, if aggressively, muted.

Faith follows the story of Anna Maria, an Austrian woman who has converted to Catholicism following an accident involving her husband, and his sudden departure. Now part of a cult-like group of evangelists who have a penchant for going door to door to spread their faith and their thoughts on the good book, her life is completely changed when her husband shows up once again, only to her love, her faith and her world view challenged by her Muslim beau.

A brazenly muted feature from Seidl whose last film, Love, was itself a plaintive feature, but never felt as emotionally or intellectually as relevant or resonant as this picture. Faith finds Seidl at his most distilled, his most quaint, his most thoughtful. Seidl’s film is shot in a way that would be described as realist by the untrained eye, but is so deliciously framed and blocked that it may seem lifeless but truly feels so specific and deliberate that it’s quite shocking. The camera only truly moves during a pair of sequences in two different apartments that Anna Maria enters, one of which paints the film as a dark look at faith and addiction and the other a rather vibrant dark comedy.

And it is in this blending of tone that the film truly comes to life. The film itself is ostensibly a drama, particularly given the heavy final act, but throughout the film Seidl’s script (which he co-wrote with Veronika Franz) injects this sense of vitality and comedy turning the picture into as brilliant a tone piece as it is a meditation on the titular topic. There is particularly one sequence, set in the home of a man who just recently lost a loved one, that is as tonally perfect a look at religion as we’ve seen in years. It’s comedic, but not coy or twee, instead getting deeper at faith than most films have the chance or the interest in getting.

Performance wise the film is equally as muted, yet just as narratively compelling. The first time we meet Anna Maria she is topless whipping herself to repent for her sins and those of others, and throughout the film we see her come up against her faith, and go against those who oppose her, in as exciting a character study as you’ll find this summer. Perfect counter programming for a film season so interested in being more self-important and visually bombastic than actually compelling, Faith features a dense performance from Maria Hofstatter, and just as deep a turn from newcomer Nabil Saleh, both of whom become impossible not to sink your emotional teeth into. Yes the staid nature of the film and its quaintness may leave some cold and some walking out of the theater not really finding a point, but these performances will help bring many people into the film, as they are breathtakingly resonant performances.

Overall, Seidl’s second Paradise film is a monstrous step forward from a first film that felt drowned entirely by its quiet aesthetic. However, with Faith, Seidl distills his filmmaking even more, frames his films as static as possible, gets two awards worthy performances out of his actors, and paints us a picture of faith and sex as potent and dense as we’ve seen all year. A truly superb and deeply resonant drama that many people may skip over for fear of not knowing everything having not seen the first film, but one that will hopefully stand as a masterful film all on its own. It may itself share a title with two other films, but if there is one to truly say about this film itself it is that it not only stands on its own two legs, but proves that some trilogies actually have something to say.