When Austrian director Ulrich Seidl first conceived of the three individual stories that form his Paradise trilogy, he intended to weave them into a single epic bummer that would run perhaps five or six hours. At some point during production, Seidl decided that this approach wouldn’t work—perhaps he feared the movie would inspire mass suicides in arthouses around the world—and so instead he gave viewers three films, tangentially related but fundamentally self-contained, in the manner of Kieslowski’s Three Colors trilogy. Judging from Paradise: Love, an exploration of sex tourism in Kenya that came out last spring, and this second entry, Paradise: Faith, the ideal form for the project would have been a single film of normal length, in which each narrative would have received about 40 minutes of screen time. In any case, that’s roughly how long both Love and Faith can sustain interest before they start monotonously repeating themselves.
Where Love sent one middle-aged woman to Africa to exploit and be exploited by foreigners, Faith sees her sister (Maria Hofstätter) interacting with foreigners at home. A devout Catholic whose house is festooned with crucifixes and inspirational sayings, Hofstätter spends her vacation week knocking on the doors of newcomers to her neighborhood—immigrants, mostly—in the hope of converting them. (Her regular prayer group always chants, “We pledge to make Austria Catholic again,” which sounds a tad ominous spoken in unison.) Like everyone, she commits sins; unlike most people, or even most Catholics, she repents for those sins by wearing a cilice, whipping her shoulders and upper back, and walking around her house on her knees until they’re bloodied and bruised. But her faith is most sorely tested by the sudden reappearance of her husband (Nabil Saleh), a paraplegic, perpetually horny Muslim who seems to represent a former life that Hofstätter has left far behind.
Typically, and refreshingly, Seidl leaves much of the backstory unstated—Saleh refers to an accident that cost him his mobility, but we’re never told the details, nor much of anything about their shared history. And Faith finally gains some momentum once a full-scale religious war breaks out in the house, with Saleh knocking the crucifixes off the walls and Hofstätter retaliating by confiscating his wheelchair, forcing him to pull himself along the floor with his arms. A powerful final scene reveals that Seidl knew exactly where he was going. But the journey is stultifyingly static, repeating the same basic information over and over with only negligible variations. There just isn’t two hours’ worth of movie here, especially considering that Seidl has previously addressed some of the same ideas in his religious documentary Jesus, You Know. When Hofstätter pulls down the crucifix from her bedroom wall, shoves it under the covers with her, and starts grinding against it, the act doesn’t seem Exorcist-style offensive so much as just desperate.