Paradise: Faith doesn’t take long to affirm that it is indeed the spiritual sequel to Paradise: Love. Faith doesn’t open quite as unexpectedly as Love—it takes a minute or so before our protagonist starts to self-flagellate—but the rigorous compositions of Wolfgang Thaler and Ed Lachman are immediately striking. Once again, Ulrich Seidl follows a woman at a turning point in her life, again on vacation, but unlike her sister (the protagonist of Love), Anna Maria (Maria Hofstätter) is staying at home and trying to fulfill her duty to “make Austria Catholic again.” The camera is a bit less mobile than in Love, providing a claustrophobic feeling that is shared by her paraplegic husband Nabil (Nabil Saleh), by far the more sympathetic of the two major characters.
Like Love, Faith falls into a slow, repetitive cycle in the middle. But once again, the shock factor increases and the plotting speeds up, and it’s easy to get pulled back in. Those shocks aren’t purely for the sake of provocation, but it does bludgeon the audience with a rather simple message: The futility of religious atonement and the sickness of its biggest practitioners. Anna Maria thinks that she can atone for everyone’s sins, as we see when she runs home to scrub herself after witnessing an orgy and as she moves about the house on her knees while wearing a restrictive belt. She also embodies the annoying-missionary that nobody likes, knocking on everyone’s door and offering unsolicited advice on how they can improve their life: return to your original romantic partners, do this or that to better honor their dead mother, stop drinking right this moment. Each of these encounters portrays religion as ridiculous and outdated; the couple makes obvious points about contraception, population, and divorce; the cooperative man throws in quietly insightful lines about which parts of the Lord’s Prayer are “important,” and the drunken Russian woman is so aggressive that Anna Maria’s entire mission becomes as laughable as each of these increasingly absurd situations, which already threaten to pull the film into comedic territory.
The more interesting part of the film involves the home life, where Anna Maria is more tolerant than loving of Nabil, and her restrictions are cruel and excessive. His cat must stay in the basement—where he sleeps on a couch, not with his wife on their bed—and he cannot watch TV. Nabil is a Muslim, and we eventually learn that he lost the use of his legs in an alcohol related incident (likely an automobile accident). What is alarming is how insistent Anna Maria is that the accident was “a blessing” that set his life in order while we watch him struggle to get in bed and move around the house. Once again, the religious advice is unsolicited and largely inappropriate, but knowing that these two are married complicates the relationship, and there remains a constant suspicion that there is something we don’t know.
Either way, it’s a welcome change to see, for once, the Muslim portrayed as the enlightened thinker and the Christian as the imposing fundamentalist, but it’s when the reversal stops that things get brutal. Nabil, tired of being ignored and mistreated, hits Anna Maria, and from then on, domestic warfare ensues, and Anna Maria becomes even more of a devil and hides his wheelchair.
It’s Nabil, then, who is the real object of sympathy. He isn’t entirely forward thinking, as demonstrated when he hits his wife and mentions that her responsibilities to cook and clean are true of “all religions,” but he’s by far the more interesting of the two. Anna Maria’s antics become increasingly disturbing, but we can see from her first encounters, where she creepily sweet-talks portraits and crosses of Jesus, that eventually she is going to take them a bit further for pleasure. Nabil, on the other hand, has a more interesting predicament as he tries to decide if he should stay with his wife, a question of religion, love, and convenience. She isn’t the best caretaker, but he couldn’t get by without her. Still, certainly more than that brought him back to her after two absent years. It’s this internal struggle, along with the exquisite, portrait-like compositions, that redeem Faith.