Venice, Italy - Religion roars onto the screen as a subject for both mainstream and avant-garde filmmakers this season— a fact reflected in and out of competition during the first days of the Venice International Film Festival, which prominently featured dramas stimulated by the world’s three major monotheistic faiths and one based on a thinly veiled version of Scientology.
Outstanding among these was the Austrian director Ulrich Seidl’s in-competition “Paradies: Glaube” (Paradise: Faith). This is the second part of his “Paradise Trilogy,” the first of which was about a woman who goes in search of love as a sex tourist in Kenya.
“Glaube” focuses on her sister, Anna Maria, played by Maria Hofstätter, who after the failure of her marriage to a Muslim immigrant, has taken up an extreme form of Catholicism, constantly praying, mortifying her flesh by scourging herself and shuffling around her apartment on her knees until they bleed. She spends the rest of her spare time going from door to door with a plaster cast of the Virgin Mary, trying to persuade people to abjure sin and adopt a rigorous form of Christianity and to save them from damnation.
But Anna Maria’s routine is disrupted when her errant husband, Nabil (Nabil Saleh), returns, now wheelchair-bound and expecting his estranged wife to care for him and even to provide what he sees as her conjugal sexual duties.
Mr. Seidl’s films, like those of Mike Leigh, involve a lengthy process of research, rehearsal and improvisation during which a script emerges, and are even shot in chronological sequence. The documentary-like results are extremely powerful in drawing us into worlds that many of us find alien. Both Ms. Hofstätter and Mr. Saleh — this is his first role — are brilliantly convincing to an almost alarming degree.
Rama Burshtein’s in-competition “Fill the Void” is set in an ultra-orthodox sect in Tel Aviv, of which the director is a member. It is the story of a young girl, Shira (Hadas Yaron), who is about to embark on an arranged marriage, whose elder sister dies in childbirth, leaving a baby son. Shira soon comes under pressure to renounce previous plans and to marry her widowed brother-in-law.
Although more conventionally made than “Paradise: Faith,” this production too opens a window on a society unknown to most viewers, but avoids the issue of how such fundamentalist sects view and coexist with, not always happily, their more secular neighbors.
Faith played a key role in both Terrence Malick’s “To the Wonder” and Paul Thomas Anderson’s film “The Master,” both also shown in competition.
In the former, the first appearance at the altar of Javier Bardem, solemn-faced and in ecclesiastical robes, provoked an outburst of mirth among some at the premiere, presumably unintended by the director. Mr. Bardem’s struggle to maintain his faith is a sub-plot that runs through the movie, about a man’s relationships with two women, one of whom seeks and fails to find solace in religion when she is rejected by her lover.
“The Master” is the story of Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), who is inventing a new faith out of his wacky sci-fi inspired ideas and takes under his wing a disturbed and drunken ex-sailor, Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix).
Dodd uses his absurd cult procedures to try to reform Freddie, unsurprisingly without success, since his entire “faith” is founded on gobbledegook that he makes up as he goes along and is primarily designed to enrich and aggrandize himself and his sinister family.
Faith in other human beings lies at the heart of Susanne Bier’s life-enhancing out-of-competition “Love Is All You Need.” This kind of faith, Ida, enchantingly played by Trine Dyrholm, has in abundance. In real life this manifestation of trust in the rest of the human race may seldom be rewarded, but this being a romantic comedy, after many travails, it is.
Ida comes home from her latest medical consultation, after a grueling course of surgery and chemotherapy for breast cancer, to find her husband Leif (Kim Bodnia), having his way with a much younger work colleague on the family’s sofa. Ida and Lief were about to set off for their daughter’s wedding in Sorrento but her husband dumps her and Ida finds herself traveling alone.
In a state of agitation, she backs her car at the airport into the swish vehicle of an irascible (but ultimately vulnerable) businessman, Philip (played with feeling by Pierce Brosnan). Philip turns out to be the father of the young man that Ida’s daughter is about to marry. In the tradition of old-style romantic comedy, Ida and Philip take an instant dislike to each other but are now forced to endure each other’s company in view of the fact that they will both be staying at Philip’s Sorrento villa, which has been empty since the death of his wife, and where the wedding festivities are to take place.
To open the action of the film with Ida in consultation with her oncologist and a series of very funny gags sparked off by this painful situation took some daring. But Ms. Bier and Anders Thomas Jensen, her scriptwriter, have clearly enjoyed working within a conventional format, while wittily and poignantly subverting expectations, to create a real gem of bittersweet comedy.