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Friday, May 24, 2013


Margarete Tiesel in Paradise: Love
Courtesy of Strand Releasing
Review by Joshua Handler

Ulrich Seidl's Paradise Trilogy was shown last month through the Film Society of Lincoln Center.  In attendance for intros and Q&As were director Ulrich Seidl, actress Margarete Tiesel, and co-cinematographer Ed Lachman.  The Film Society graciously gave me tickets to this film series and I apologize to them for not writing up this review sooner.  Paradise: Love, the first film in the series was released last month, and Paradise: Faith and Paradise: Hope will be released later in the year by Strand Releasing.

Austrian provocateur Ulrich Seidl made three thematically similar, yet almost completely narratively separate films which put together create the Paradise Trilogy.  The first film, Paradise: Love was released last month and the following two, Paradise: Faith and Paradise: Hope will be released in theaters later this year.  Each film follows a different woman from the same family looking for their individual paradises.

Paradise: Love follows Teresa (Margarete Tiesel), an overweight middle-aged woman who decides to leave her boring life in Austria for a vacation to Kenya.  While in Kenya, Teresa searches for love or at least someone who genuinely finds her attractive, yet only finds men who are willing to exploit her for loveless sex.  Love is a fascinating, flawed, and very disturbing film that is also shocking in its frankness.  Seidl uses an incredible amount of casual nudity and sex to drive his point home.  The lovely Margarete Tiesel gives a committed performance.  She isn't afraid to be completely nude and really has a commanding screen presence.  Teresa is despicable, yet oddly likable at the same time, and Tiesel captures this brilliantly.

The effects of colonialism on Africa is an overarching theme in Love.  While colonialism ended some time ago, the film still depicts the African men waiting on the rich white women, while the women treat them like something less than dirt.  The women expect all of the men to want to have sex with them and to be completely subservient.  At one point in Love, Teresa invites one of the young hotel workers in to her room to have sex with her.  When he refuses, she promptly gets mad and brutally kicks him out.  As soon as she realized that he wouldn't have sex with her, her whole attitude changed.  She changed from a nice, generous lady to a cold, mean one.

Throughout the course of the movie, Teresa looks for love with these men and never finds it.  The ending to the film is not quite satisfying, as it is too abrupt and the pace is a bit too slow, but the climactic scene that precedes it is a scene so subtly disturbing and powerful that it makes up for much of the film's flaws.  The climax of Love is quite possibly the greatest scene in the entire trilogy of films.  It is incredibly frank, disturbing in its implications, and the reason why I cannot get this film out of my head.

The second film in the trilogy, Paradise: Faith was all-around the best and a film I would consider a masterpiece.  It follows Teresa's sister, Anna Maria (Maria Hofstätter), a devout Catholic whose entire life is dedicated to her religion.  However, one day, Anna Maria's Muslim husband comes back to her house and shakes everything up.  This film is about Anna Maria's search for paradise through religion and is the most controversial of the films (I don't want to give anything away, but when you see this film, you'll know why Faith caused controversy).

Hofstätter's performance, like Tiesel's in Love, is a powerhouse that is as daring as it is controlled.  Hofstätter does a masterful job at conveying the pent up emotion inside of Anna Maria.  She lives for Jesus and literally doesn't do anything that will hinder her quest for paradise.  Even in a sequence in which Anna Maria tries to get a drunk woman to pray with her and is subsequently attacked, Hofstätter keeps control.

Faith examines the clash of non-fundamentalist Islam with fundamentalist Christianity and the place of fundamentalist religion in the modern world.  As her husband and the world try to break Anna Maria's devotion to her faith, it becomes more and more evident how ridiculous her way of life is and how in this day and age, there is no need for fundamentalist religion.  In an age in which religion is frequently questioned, there is no room for all-encompassing religious devotion, and this is why Anna Maria's paradise is unattainable.  Her paradise is one that does not exist, is not tangible.

This film is visually and thematically provocative and will give audiences quite a bit to think about when it has ended.  I personally find religion a fascinating subject and loved the way that Seidl took a no-holds-barred approach to the subject.  It was deliberately-paced, but endlessly fascinating and a film that I would happily view again.

The third film in the trilogy,  Paradise: Hope, is the lightest and least interesting of the trilogy, yet still features some incredible performances.  It follows Teresa's daughter, Melanie (Melanie Lenz), an overweight teenager who is sent to a weight-loss camp.  She searches for her paradise in an older doctor who works at the camp.  This film is shot in the same cold style as the previous two, but is nowhere near as challenging or intriguing.  Hope does not seem to know what point it wants to make and ends on a very abrupt note, making the film extremely unsatisfying.

However, the acting from everyone is phenomenal, particularly Lenz, who gives her character a warmth and charm not seen in Teresa or Anna Maria.  Melanie is young and hasn't been beaten by the world yet (though one can predict that if her story were continued by Seidl, she'd be near death later in life, as he is far too kind to her in this installment of the trilogy).

The comparative lightness of this film does not work to Hope's favor, as it prevents Seidl from exploring seriously weighty issues and is a dramatic tonal shift from the other two deadly serious films. The lightness in this movie is additionally far too large a contrast to the film's darker subplots.

According to Seidl, the films' scenes were shot in chronological order, a rarity for a feature film, as all of the film's dialogue was improvised.  By shooting in chronological order, the actors were able to build their characters.  If shot non-chronologically with improvised dialogue, the actors wouldn't have had time to prep.  Seidl also mentioned that he originally had wanted to put Hope before Faith, an interesting decision, and wanted the three films to be one long movie before realizing that there was way too much material for one movie and that the stories weakened, rather than strengthened, each other.  Ed Lachman (Far From Heaven, I'm Not There), the trilogy's co-cinematographer, said that loved that original film, though.

Instead of shooting with written dialogue, Seidl said that a 20-page synopsis of the given film would be written and he would shoot off of that.  After shooting a scene, he would stop, edit or analyze the given scene, then shoot the next one.  During the post-series Q&A, Ulrich Seidl said something that I was fascinated by.  He said that American films are more dialogue-based, as they rely on dialogue, like a novel does, to propel the story forward, whereas European films, like his own, are about observation.  I cannot argue with Seidl.  His films' success lay mostly in their acute sense of observation.  Each character in all of his films is three-dimensional and real.  No matter if I liked the film or not, I always believed the characters and the situations.  Many scenes have dialogue, but it is the power of the (sometimes explicit) visuals that transcends words.  If one looks at a standard American film, I'll use 2011's The Help, it is completely evident how much we rely on "witty" repartee rather than silence and observation in our films.  While the performances in The Help were masterful and finely observed, the script and direction were not.  While director Tate Taylor certainly allows Viola Davis scenes of beautiful silence, he doesn't give her enough, and he certainly doesn't grant his other actors or scenes the same privilege.  In that film, the characters' emotions are rarely observed or felt; they are said. In contrast, in Seidl's trilogy, the emotions are frequently conveyed through actions or pure silence.

Overall, while the Paradise Trilogy is uneven, it is absolutely fascinating and I would happily give each film another watch, as they all have a lot to explore.  I find myself thinking more and more about Love.  While it was not as strong as Faith, Love has scenes that are so brilliantly executed that I would love to re-watch the film to view them again.  These movies will not be for everyone.  In fact, most will positively hate them.  However, if you like your films really dark and bleak, these would definitely be worth looking into.

Paradise: Love 3.5/4
Paradise: Faith 4/4
Paradise: Hope 2/4

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