Film: Fat Camp Rebel

Paradise: Hope, the third and final entry in Austrian auteur Ulrich Seidl’s Paradise Trilogy, possesses a trait I thought I’d never see in any of his films: optimism.

Viewers who cringed at the sight of Teresa (the sublime Margarete Tiesl), an obese, Vienna-based divorcée, obsessively chasing after Kenyan men half her age in Paradise: Love – that would be Part 1 for those unfamiliar with the polarizing triptych – are probably expecting Seidl to pull no punches in the setting he has chosen for his big finale: a government-run facility, located in the Austrian countryside, where overweight teens go to exercise and, hopefully, earn some self-esteem as the pounds melt away.

Our protagonist is none other than Teresa’s daughter Melanie (Melanie Lenz) – Melli for short – who we first saw in Love pretending to listen to her mom as the latter got ready for her African sexytime safari. When we first see Melli Vanilli this time around, she’s his usual sullen self, lazily texting away on her smartphone while sitting on fanatical missionary Maria’s couch. (That’s right, Paradise: Faith‘s Maria, the one with the unhealthy Jesus Christ fetish.) Once Maria (Maria Hofstätter) drops Petunia off at fat camp, that’s the last we see of the prudish Bible-thumper. Wave bye-bye.

Ms. Plus Size is only 13, you see, even though her extra heft makes her seem more mature. And just when you think Paradise: Hope will devolve into incessant ridicule for the pudgy campers, Herr Seidl throws you a curveball. The children bring out a motherly warmth in the filmmaker, and it comes out in the dialogue, which he wrote with Veronika Franz, his partner at the movies and in life. There’s a semi-improvised feel to the scenes in which Melli meets her three roommates. (They quickly establish they’re all children of divorce, something Ulrich and Franz milk for all their worth.) Really, the most outrageous gag here is the good-natured observation that the kids with some of the biggest boobs happen to be boys.

The property’s spacious, open air vistas, as well as the expansive inner court and swimming pool, give Seidl plenty of opportunities to come up with some rigidly composed tableaux. (The locations are a playground for cinematographers Wolfgang Thaler and Ed Lachman.) His meandering narrative often takes a time-out to show the kids, often shot in single file facing the camera, struggling through warm-up exercises or standing in line at the cafeteria. “Discipline is the cornerstone of success,” proclaims the camp’s coach, or “sporttrainer” (Michael Thomas), who pushes his heavy-set athletes but stops short of excessive treatment … except when they break curfew. Then beware his wrath.

What ultimately gives Paradise: Hope the semblance of a plot arrives in the form of Dr. Arzt (Joseph Lorenz), who gets a tad too chummy with his stethoscope when Melli comes in for a checkup. His interest awakens something in Melli, but the crush she develops on him is more emotional than physical, which seems to intimidate this quiet medicine man who looks like a cross between Rutger Hauer and Bill Nighy. It’s almost as if Seidl and Franz are dead set on preserving their young heroine’s innocence, and their paternal instincts extend to the rest of the campers, particularly in a scene where several of them, boys and girls, have an after-hours party in Melli’s room. There’s drinking and smoking, but there’s a purity to their carousing, even during the inevitable round of spin the bottle. Teresa’s disturbing birthday bash in her hotel room near the end of Love immediately comes to mind, and the contrast couldn’t be more clear. In the prior film, a handful of Sugar Mamas (aka middle-aged European sex tourists) exploit a slim – and fairly well endowed – escort. Hope‘s teenage revelers are simply taking the opportunity to be themselves in the temporary absence of authority figures.

Beneath the rebellious behavior, these kids are still unspoiled, Seidl appears to convey. They’re blessedly free of the crippling hangups that beset Teresa and Maria. Even when Melli and her older roommate Verena (Verena Lehbauer) go AWOL later in the film and hit a local bar, Seidl’s got their back. The wild card here turns out to be Arzt, who could have been reduced to a humorless predator, but instead comes across as a man full of contradictions and prone to unpredictable – and increasingly bizarre – behavior. The strange bond the enigmatic doctor forms with Melli-licious defies easy categorization, and their relationship has a distinctive ebb and flow that mirrors the camp’s cyclical, extended-holiday vibe.

It all amounts to a bright light at the end of the tunnel after the unremitting satire in Love and Faith, a more accessible dessert after a movie feast that might not have sat well with some audiences. Bubbling to the surface in the wake of his unblinking portrayal of Austrian mores in the two previous Paradise entries is an unfettered vote of confidence for his country’s youth, the sincere belief that the new generation is quite capable of transcending their elders’ baggage. He has made a buoyant, disarmingly tender coming-of-age fable that shows this merciless provocateur is capable of immense kindness. Ulrich, you big softie.

Paradise: Hope starts whipping arthouse crowds into shape starting Friday, Oct. 25, exclusively at the Miami Beach Cinematheque. What’s that? You missed Parts 1 and 2? Don’t despair, adventurous movie lovers. The Cinematheque will also be bringing back Paradise: Love and Paradise: Faith for encore showings all week long. Log on to mbcinema.com for screening details. All three are warmly recommended; just bear in mind neither Love nor Faith are apt viewing for prudes, devout Catholics or the easily offended.

About Ruben Rosario

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