Film: True Believers

She takes the large crucifix above her bed and cradles it in her arms. Such devotion might come across as nothing short of inspiring among the faithful. Then she starts giving the naked man on the cross a tongue bath, and you know you’re heading into some very dark territory, indeed.

Anna Maria, the righteous, God-fearing disciple at the center of Ulrich Seidl’s Paradise: Faith, has allowed her tireless quest to convert all of Austria to Catholicism to take over her waking hours. The second chapter in Seidl’s provocative Paradise trilogy wastes no time in getting a rise out of viewers. By day, Anna Maria (the phenomenal Maria Hofstätter) works as a lab technician, administering MRIs to cancer patients and mammograms to big breasted women. At night, however, she kneels in front of her Savior. Off comes the bra; out comes the whip. She then starts lashing herself with a fervor that would make the albino hitman in The Da Vinci Code seethe with envy.

The fanatical Viennese resident is about to enjoy some time off from her day job, but unlike Teresa, the 50-year-old divorcée on safari for virile Kenyan man-flesh in Paradise: Love, Anna Maria is staying put, the better to go door to door with her Virgin Mary statue to save the souls of those heathen immigrants at the dingy apartment building she has targeted as her battleground to spread the Good Word. Seidl, who co-wrote the razor-sharp, unremittingly stark screenplay with Veronika Franz (aka Mrs. Seidl), allows the sequences in which she aggressively barges in after proclaiming, “The Mother of God has come to visit you today” to unfold with you-are-there naturalism. Eastern European families who barely speak German stare dumbfounded as the pushy missionary talks them into kneeling to pray with her. Once in a while she’ll come across skeptics who question her fiercely held beliefs, as in a heated exchange she has with a couple who divorced their prior spouses.

Seidl’s formalism is particularly effective in the scenes that take place inside Anna Maria’s tidy apartment. Meticulously framed long shots of Anna Maria singing hymns while playing her organ, or crawling around her apartment on her knees while reciting Hail Marys over and over, take you inside her hermetic world. Threatening to unsettle her strict, unwavering lifestyle during her staycation is Nabil (Nabil Saleh), the quadriplegic Muslim who suddenly moves in with her. We soon discover he’s her estranged husband, and he’s determined to persuade Anna Maria to perform her wifely duties. All of them. Seidl methodically turns the screws on the troubled marriage, and by extension, on his audience. Tensions simmer between the interfaith couple, and as long as Seidl and Franz focus on the unique neuroses that drive a wedge between Anna and Nabil, their fearless brand of satire bristles with take-no-prisoners brazenness.

Paradise: Faith is on shakier territory when the filmmakers strike a rather heavy-handed parallel between Nabil’s fundamentalism and Anna’s extreme zeal. Nabil, in particular, is sometimes reduced to a shrill, insult-spouting cartoon, a far cry from the money-grubbing locals with whom Teresa hooks up in Paradise: Love. In addition, Seidl’s deliberate pacing, which was ideal for chronicling Teresa’s aimless African vacation, makes it tougher to digest Faith‘s spare, sometimes threadbare narrative. A tighter structure could have gone a long way towards enlivening the second film’s mix of cheeky topical jabs and dead serious observations about the ways religion can become a crutch in a person’s quest for self-improvement.

Seidl knows he’s asking a lot from his audience, and he rewards viewers’ patience with a series of climactic knockout moments that more than compensate for his occasionally grating social commentary. Faith might get on your nerves and test your moviegoing endurance level, but rest assured the end result is character-driven cinema of the highest caliber. Here’s hoping, however, that the final entry in his thought-provoking trilogy, Paradise: Hope, ends the series on a more positive note. This reviewer certainly has faith.

If part of me wanted Seidl’s film had been shorter, I kept wishing The Grandmaster, Hong Kong auteur Wong Kar Wai’s languorous portrait of kung fu icon Ip Man (1893-1972), had been longer. (Chinese audiences did see a longer cut, but we’ll get to that later.) For its first, glorious hour, this bracing mix of martial arts and unrequited romance delivers precisely the kind of sumptuous spectacle that has been in short supply at the movies this summer.

The story kicks into gear in 1936 China, when northern kung fu master Gong Yutian (Qingxian Wang) arrives at the southern city of Foshan to announce his retirement and reveal the heir who will carry on his legacy. He glimpses a street fight in which Ip Man (the versatile, charismatic Tony Leung Chiu-Wai) takes on several men singlehandedly and prevails. Like many scenes in Grandmaster, the expertly choreographed rumble takes place at night, which is in keeping with cinematographer Philippe Le Sourd’s atmospheric palette of dark hues. Yutian’s daughter, Gong Er (Memoirs of a Geisha‘s Zhang Ziyi) argues she’s more than capable of following in her father’s footsteps. “In the world of martial arts, there’s no place for you,” replies Dad, who wants her to pursue a career in medicine.

Gong Er’s not going down without a fight, and in the film’s most memorable sequence, she takes on an amused – and married – Ip Man one-on-one. Their captivating mano-a-mano is part battle of the sexes, part courtship by fisticuffs, and it showcases Wong’s gift for imbuing his mise en scène with exquisite heartache. The fight sequences in The Grandmaster are slow and studied, and never less than enthralling. Every hand gesture, every kick has a distinctive purpose and personality. Kung fu is a rich language, argues Wong, and it merits to be explored with the utmost care, especially when it comes to portraying the man who went on to train Bruce Lee.

The Second Sino-Chinese War divides the would-be lovers for years, and the wealthy Ip Man falls on hard times. The demands of providing for his family later force him to emigrate to Hong Kong, where he is torn apart from his loved ones after the Chinese government closes its borders in 1950. Fascinating stuff, no? Well, it would be, if it didn’t feel like Wong was jumping from one historical highlight to another as if he were ticking off a checklist. The version of The Grandmaster American audiences will see has been trimmed down a whopping 22 minutes by Wong himself, who also took the opportunity to shuffle the narrative around. The filmmaker is notorious for taking years in the editing suite to find the shape of his features (Chungking Express, In the Mood for Love), and this historical epic, at least five years in the making, shows the filmmaker duty-bound to pay tribute to a venerated figure in Chinese culture while following his muse. The dueling impulses work beautifully at first, but once the film leaves the 1930s behind and begins its disorienting decade-hopping, the spell is broken. Individual sequences dazzle, to be sure, but the film doesn’t quite coalesce into a satisfying whole.

The biggest difference between the original cut and the U.S. edit is Gong Er’s storyline after her fateful fight, which is interweaved with Ip Man’s struggles in Hong Kong in the Chinese version but is cobbled together into a lengthy flashback in the American release. The strategy paid off for Ang Lee in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, which took an extended detour featuring the feisty character that was also played by Zhang. But that film did not span decades the way The Grandmaster does, so the narrative held together. In Wong’s case, the flashback, which abruptly takes the film from 1951 back to 1941, threatens to derail the film. It is very unfortunate, because up until that point, The Grandmaster, which still demands to be experienced on the biggest screen you can find, is an intoxicating feast for the senses.

The Grandmaster opens Friday in wide release. That same day, the Miami Beach Cinematheque invites you to leave your inhibitions at the door for their exclusive engagement of Paradise: Faith, to which I can only respond, God bless Ulrich Seidl. The arthouse will also be holding encore screenings of Paradise: Love, which I could not recommend more strongly.

About Ruben Rosario

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