Venice 2012: Ulrich Seidl on His Controversial "Paradise: Faith" (Q&A)

The Austrian director responds to backlash from the Italian media for his "blasphemous" film, the second in a trilogy.

VENICE -- The Venice Film Festival competition entry Paradise: Faith by Austrian director Ulrich Seidl caused an uproar in the Italian media after it premiered Thursday at the Lido. The film -- the second in a trilogy that started with Paradise: Love, which premiered in Competition at Cannes in May and told the story of a female sex tourist in Africa -- is an exploration of religion and oppression.

Austrian actress Maria Hofstatter plays Anna-Maria, an obsessively devoted Catholic who is unhappily married to a handicapped Muslim and, at one point, masturbates using a cross. That scene in particular caused Italian media to describe the film as “blasphemous" -- but also “intelligently ironic,” “merciless” and “dark humored."

The 60-year-old Seidl, who won Venice's Grand Special Jury Prize for his film Dog Days in 2001 and whose Import/Export was in Competition at Cannes five years ago, does not object to being perceived as an uneasy director; he always is looking at reality in an unadorned way. In Venice, Seidl told The Hollywood Reporter that he's “still waiting for a statement from the Vatican” as he sat down to talk about his view on the perversion of faith, religious fundamentalists and the possibility of the third part of the trilogy being in Competition at Berlin competition next year.

The Hollywood Reporter: Italian media has reacted expectedly strongly to your film, some even calling it a scandal. How do you feel about such reactions?

Ulrich Seidl: Satisfied. Whenever I make a film, I am looking for a way to show the truth, or at least the truth as I perceive it. I am taking into account that somebody might not like the look I am taking at reality. For the story of the character in this film, it is right to show her masturbating using a cross, as she is making love to Jesus. Just because it might be a taboo doesn’t mean that I won’t show it. I prefer turmoil to silence.

THR: Is breaking taboos something that you look to do in general?

SeidlNo, that must never be the goal when making a film. But revealing the truth very often provokes a scandal. Scandals are good; they make people talk.

THR: What do you think is the link between religion and the repression of sexuality?

Seidl: Faith is taking a perverted form here. Over the course of centuries, Catholicism has suppressed sexuality, and of course, this triggered a counter-movement. While the Church is creating a taboo around sexuality, we all know about the terrible abusive things that are happening behind the walls. That is very scandalous, but it is as well a logic consequence. By oppressing sexuality, you cause the erosion of moral ethics. Besides, Anna-Maria is convinced that the media and the public are addicted to sexuality, and she castigates herself in the name of the people to do away with this malady. This, in turn, provides her with satisfaction. It is a thin line between pain and lust.

THR: You often have described your own Catholic education as extremely limiting, frightening and oppressive.

SeidlBeing raised in a strict Catholic environment has made me rebel against the hypocrisy I saw there and made me look into this topic with much interest. I do not reject the ethic values of the Church, but I can't support what the abuse of such values turns people into.

THR: Is Anna-Maria a Catholic fundamentalist?

Seidl: I don’t think that is a fair term to use in describing her because that term is coined with Islamic terrorism. It implies that such a person is ready to use violence to promote their cause, and that is not what Anna-Maria is like. She is very extreme in what she believes in and in her love toward Jesus, but she is not a missionary. But, of course, there are Christian fundamentalists, in the U.S. as well as in Austria or other countries. There are very conservative circles within the Church, like the Opus Dei, where self-castigation is a common practice. I do not make things up for a film, I only show them. I want people to look at things.

THR: Anna-Maria is unhappily married to a Muslim in a wheelchair, and their daily fights are as much marriage fights as they reflect, on a small scale, the cultural conflicts between Muslims and Catholics. Did you intend to comment on the current debate?

SeidlWe are facing this conflict everywhere, and I am only showing an example of how it can look like. They are pretty cruel to each other without being terrorists.

THR: Where do you draw your knowledge of the Muslim world from?

SeidlAs an author, I take a certain freedom. The actor [in the film], Nabil Saleh, is a Muslim himself, and we have talked a lot about the image and representation of Islam in this film. Personally, I have travelled to many Muslim countries and also consider myself a reliable source, drawing from that experience. The husband’s main conflict with the West lies in dealing with sexuality and desire: In the West, women are much more easily available, but that is also why they are easily stigmatized as whores by foreigners.

THR: In all your films, the central characters have serious issues with sexuality. Why?  

Seidl: Sexuality is the main drive in a human being, it takes an important role in everybody's life, and in the end, everybody has problems in dealing with that.

THR: What is the third film of this trilogy, Paradise: Hope, going to be about?

SeidlAnna-Maria’s overweight niece will be in the center of that film. In a diet camp she falls in love with the doctor who is three times her age. The film will again deal with the topics of love, sexuality, lust, desire and physicality, from a teenage girl's point of view.

THR: Will Paradise: Hope be the one to complete your festival hat trick and premiere in Competition at the Berlin International Film Festival in February?

Seidl: We are aiming for that, yes. It is not yet officially confirmed.