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.
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).
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+]