It's anyone's guess how to situate Ulrich Seidl's Paradise on the continuum of movie trilogies, but safe to say that unlike your Bourne and Lord of the Rings and Star Wars and Three Colors and Toy Story, this one seems innately less collectible. If you're stoked for the Paradise DVD box set, something might be wrong with you.
What's with that title, anyway? Infernos and purgatories are everywhere you look in these three films, whose contemporary protagonists — respectively a sex tourist, a self-appointed Christian missionary, and a teenager at fat camp — find themselves variously tyrannized by soul-corroding social institutions. But paradise? The main line of connection between Love, Faith, and Hope, as Seidl labels his installments, isn't that these women are each other's relatives (though they are); it's that divine fulfillment seems so cruelly elusive to all of them.
Love limns the disturbing chiaroscuro of shapeless middle-aged white Austrian women among sinewy young black African men. Faith, the most resolute of the three, is essentially a study of flagellation. Hope plants pseudo-Nabokovian yearning beneath the drudgery of jumping jacks and bunk-bed gossip. Cumulatively, this trilogy could not unfairly be called a bummer. What's more, Seidl's potentially off-putting approach is characterized by a take-me-or-leave-me tone, with visually and dramatically spartan compositions. He courts controversy by probing for documentary verity within narrative construction: Several of the Paradise actors are non-professionals, and several scenes — even scenes of violence, apparently — are improvised.
Certainly explicit, possibly exploitative, these are films which seem somehow to conflate humanism and sadism. And yet they remain perversely recommendable. Seidl may not be the guy you want displayed in your DVD library, but he has a bold vision of our world — from which paradise becomes visible through our awareness of its loss.