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.