63rd Berlinale Review: “Paradise: Hope” by Ulrich Seidl

Completing his Paradise trilogy (Love-Faith-Hope) on human nature, Austrian filmmaker Ulrich Seidl takes his usually provocative tactics a notch down. Is it because he truly believes in the new generation or because he’s lost faith altogether?

Melina is the daughter of “Paradise: Love’s” main character Teresa. While her mom is enjoying her sex trip in Kenya, the 13-year old student if spending her time at a teenage fat farm. A dozen overweight boys and girls, whose personalities are still under construction, are shut away in an institutionalized environment, undergoing pointless and rather naive discipline exercises that will supposedly stave them off overeating. At night, the unsupervised teenagers share their innermost secrets, play spin the bottle, drink and dance. 13-year-old Melina falls in love with the charming middle-aged camp doctor and that’s when things start to get ugly.

Or at least we’re convinced they will. Knowing how provocative Seidl tends to be, we breathlessly await the moment his relentless camera will document scenes we’d rather not witness. Especially when the script makes it clear, that it’s mostly teenage girls who’ve never had a taste of love – fatherly or otherwise – that are the most insistent in their advances towards their much older professors/ doctors/ uncles. Melina’s body language makes it clear that she visits the good doctor every day because she “loves” him. And the doctor’s sly smile, plus some semi-naked games with the proverbial stethoscope, leave audiences paralyzed, expecting the worst.

But, surprisingly enough, Seidl doesn’t go that way. Perversion is masked with moments of awkward affection. The filmmaker certainly walks the line, but never really gives into his provocative tendencies. He’d rather remain emotionally removed, focusing on black humor (the PE teacher’s punishments for secret overeating or the silly exercises he makes the kids do), which, ironically enough, only generates sadness. He’d much rather wander around the marble corridors of this hospital-like establishment, using the exemplary photography to explore a feeling of confinement.

This little trick helps you stand still and wonder: what kind of parent would sentence their kid to this kind of traumatic imprisonment? Why are these kids feeling so desolate and why have they allowed their bodies to become so deformed? Who neglected them and what’s going to happen to them in the future? Are they going to be victimized again and again? Is there any hope for them?

This last question is intricately entwined with the film’s title but it’s hard to gauge what Seidl is getting at, using children to conclude a trilogy on the demise of human nature. Honestly, there’s not a lot of margin for hope, even if it’s usually the last thing to die.