Along with fellow countryman Michael Haneke, director Ulrich Seidl puts the austerity back in Austria with his new film "Paradise: Faith," the second part of a trilogy between "Love" and "Hope." You know you're in the company of one of these men when in the first scene, a woman strips down to her undies and whips herself at the foot of a cross.
Here, we're in the surgically precise hands of Seidl, director of "Dog Days" and brilliant immigrant drama "Import/Export." But we might as well be in the grasp of Haneke, namely his 2001 Isabelle Huppert starrer "The Piano Teacher," or Marcus Schleinzer, who directed "Michael" (2001), about a pedophile who keeps a ten-year-old in his basement. Aesthetically, they share the same values: long takes, tight spaces and crippling psychosexual despair.
In "Faith," a lonely missionary worker lives a contained life inside an aseptic and joyless apartment. Her name is Anna and, like her director's vision, her quotidian life is dismal and repetitive. When not scrubbing or cleaning or scourging her home of any sign of life, she repents, going door-to-unwelcoming-door, plastic Virgin Mary in hand, attempting to convert all of Austria, mostly its immigrants, to Catholicism.
Anna's self-imposed rituals of hygiene and order, however, upend when her paraplegic and estranged Muslim husband comes home. Like Huppert's heroine in "The Piano Teacher" -- a music instructor who leads a sordid life beneath her frozen, unforgiving visage -- Anna begins to drift into sin and dissolution.
At one point, she tumbles into a mass orgy writhing in the darkness of a public park. It's a distressing yet darkly comic and visually arresting scene of polyamory, bodies and limbs everywhere, like X-rated Hieronymus Bosch. Anna is repulsed, but just as Maria Hofstatter, in a masterfully controlled performance, registers a knowing glimmer of curiosity on Anna's face, Seidl seems to be sneering, too.
And it just gets more ridiculous from there. Through a pattern of long takes and extended sequences, "Faith" unfolds at a rhythm similar to Chantal Akerman's "Jeanne Dielman" (1975), where a Parisian housewife's domestic and sanitary life subtly erupts into chaos over time. Seidl very much wants to be a member of that art house elite. If only he would unpack his repressed style faster, as the real dramatic crux of "Faith," co-written by Seidl's wife Veronika Franz, doesn't reveal itself until the film's final moments.
Where the main character of "Paradise: Love," an obese and lovesick Austrian tourist adrift in an African sex resort, was fully-fleshed and full of idiosyncrasy, Hofstatter's Anna is unsympathetic and unsavory. Her final emotional breakdown falls flat after we've endured so much stifling of emotion. But the actress does find the black comedy in her character, a proselytizing religious zealot who has, as it turns out, a kinky relationship with Jesus.
Some viewers, maybe even the wrong viewers, may see in this film the parody of Austrian cinema, with its Hanekes and Schleinzers who get off on beating their audiences into submission with glacially placed misery and anguish, and it would be hard to disagree with them. But for those apostles of this kind of arty, psychological torture porn -- count this viewer among them -- "Paradise: Faith" is the work of a master. This just isn't his masterpiece.