“It’s my cozy room,” the man says, proudly touring his neatly arranged basement. This is where he comes to relax and be himself, surrounded by the things that make him happy: his brass musical instruments, his well-stocked bar, his Hitler paraphernalia. Wait, what? Down here in this Austrian man-cave, forbidden portraits of the Führer share space with uniforms and other Nazi bric-a-brac. You know—cozy. This is one of the many sanctuaries explored in In the Basement, Ulrich Seidl’s unsavory documentary. The baleful Austrian filmmaker (of the grueling Paradise trilogy) turns his gaze downstairs, where all the strange and dark impulses that lie beneath the civilized veneer are blossoming in full weirdness.
The opening shot of Ulrich Seidl’s Paradise: Faith is both a character sketch and a warning. A woman enters a spartan room, partially disrobes, and kneels before the crucifix on the wall. She then whips herself across the back with a crude cat-o-nine-tails. At length. That’s the warning part: Seidl is serving notice that Paradise: Faith will be a test of endurance and not for the faint of heart. (The movie’s the middle installment of Seidl’s Paradise trilogy, bracketed by Paradise: Love—seen here in June—and Paradise: Hope; they are slightly but not significantly related.)
The woman is Anna Maria, played by the extremely brave Maria Hofstätter. After our startling opening glimpse, we see her as a neatly coiffed medical technician, beginning a staycation during which she’ll trudge though Vienna neighborhoods carrying a statue of the Virgin Mary and buttonholing strangers about joining the ranks of her extreme Catholic sect.