"Oh boy. People are picketing our box office in protest of PARADISE FAITH." That's a tweet by Cinefamily, referring to the Wednesday, August 28, 2013, screening of Ulrich Seidl's Paradise: Faith at the Silent Movie Theater in West Hollywood.
Part two of Seidl's "Paradise" trilogy — which began with the Cannes Film Festival entry Paradise: Love and ends with Paradise: Hope — Paradise: Faith was co-written by Seidl and Veronika Franz. The stark drama revolves around a Viennese woman (Maria Hofstätter) who happens to be both the wife of a paraplegic Muslim man (Nabil Saleh) and an ardent Catholic, along the lines of the religiously demented Hazel Motes from Flannery O'Connor's Wise Blood.
Ulrich Seidl: More merciless than Michael Haneke
"Mr. Seidl's eye is even more merciless — some would say cruelly contemptuous — than that of Michael Haneke, his chilly fellow Austrian director," writes Stephen Holden in the New York Times. "Depending on your point of view, he is either a fiendish misanthrope inviting us to chortle about what fools these mortals be or a radical truth teller challenging us to remove our blinders and accept that we are essentially as crazy as his characters are."
But would misanthropy or radical truth telling be reason enough for irate Catholics to picket the Silent Movie Theater last Wednesday and New York City's Village East City Cinemas on Saturday? The answer is a resounding No. Paradise: Faith offers quite a bit more.
As Stephen Holden explains, "… Mr. Seidl can't disguise his loathing of religion." The film's first lines are the Catholic Anna Maria's "spoken prayer to a crucifix on the wall: 'Beloved Jesus, please accept my sacrifice today for the grave sin of unchastity. …' Stripping to the waist and falling to her knees, she ritually flagellates herself. Later in the movie, she masturbates with the same crucifix."
'Paradise: Faith': 'Terrible pornographic attack' on the crucifix
Religious protests against "blasphemous" movies are nothing new. Catholic leaders were in large part responsible for the implementation of the Production Code in mid-1934, a de facto censorship board that kept American movies "clean" — free of sex, nudity, gays, unpunished "evil" or "immorality," etc. — until the mid-'60s. William Friedkin's The Exorcist, Jean-Luc Godard's Hail Mary, and Martin Scorsese's The Last Temptation of Christ are three movies that angered some Christians, while Deepa Mehta's Academy Award-nominated Water infuriated fundamentalist Hindus and the amateur video Innocence of Muslims led to widespread and bloody protests in several Muslim countries.
According to the America Needs Fatima (ANF) blog, the anti-Paradise: Faith protest was organized by a local AFN representative along with the Tradition, Family and Property group. As per the ANF blog, which calls Paradise: Faith a "terrible pornographic attack on Jesus' crucifix," the protest "consisted in praying the fifteen decades of the rosary, some other prayers (especially the St. Michael prayer) and the Litany of Our Lady. Our people spread out single to double file to cover the entire front of the cinema."
A Strand release in the United States, Paradise: Faith took in a paltry $2,179 from three theaters last weekend, August 23-25, 2013, averaging a dismal $726 per site. The protests against the film quite possibly made it more visible this weekend than it would have been otherwise. The latest estimates haven't been made public so far.
Paradise: Faith currently has a so-so 64 percent approval rating among Rotten Tomatoes' top critics and a downright mediocre 5.8/10 average rating. Eleven reviews have been taken into account. Last year, Paradise: Faith won the Special Jury Prize at the Venice Film Festival, in addition to the festival's 'CinemAvvenire' Award for the Best Film in the Official Competition.
Besides Maria Hofstätter and Nabil Saleh, Paradise: Faith features Natalija Baranova, Rene Rupnik, Daniel Hoesl, and Dieter Masur.
Maria Hofstätter in Paradise: Faith photo: Strand Releasing.