I don’t claim to know Jesus, but I do know the work of Austrian director Ulrich Seidl and for a filmmaker whose previous work I’ve seen a limited amount of (thanks to the fact that not more international films are distributed in the States), I sort of expected this documentary (if one can really call it that) to attempt to shed light on what it saw to be the inconsistencies, ambiguities or contradictions in religion. I was wrong. The movie instead seems to want to peel our eyelids back and force us to bear the private confessions of a select group of devout Catholic Austrians. On the whole, there is really nothing more to this film than the invasiveness it attempts to portray as cinematic, when in reality the “story” is more akin to a play (or anti-play) by Ionesco or even Beckett, with it’s dramatic structure accentuating the simple-minded, puppetry of its characters.
The film concentrates on the seemingly paltry confessions of local residents in all their unglorified normalcy; some of them interesting, some of them not. Of the interesting ones there is the housewife who dusts the many large crucifixes and wipes down the bloody chests of the crucified martyr suspended from them. Her confessions are of how she longs for her Muslim husband to accept her Catholicism. He does not and they fight about it often, furthermore the scenes involving both of them depict just how wide the gap is between their faiths, something which seems to be preventative of them embracing their relationship and continuing to share any love which they used to have for each other.
In another woman’s confession, we are shown the desperation at the thought of being alone at an old age. A little old woman quietly sits in the front pew of the church by herself confessing her thoughts at poisoning her husband who she believes is having an affair. She admits she simply doesn’t want to be alone. When she does confront him at a much later date, he leaves her anyway, and we watch as she takes sleeping pills to help herself cope with the fact of being alone at night.
And while these two individuals stick out for me, there are also other interesting storylines which crop up during our time as a voyeur in the various Catholic churches of Austria. It’s interesting to see the way Seidl cuts the dialogue of the “documentary” confessions almost as if the individuals are having their conversations with God. And one might argue from a religious point of view, that they are having conversations with God, and it’s validated in the way Seidl will always cut to a crucifix, or an adorned altar, or even the church itself just as the confessors conclude, as if to show the “reaction shot” or response of their listening Lord.
Seidl does a good job of showing us all sides of the devout. Some of the patrons only seem to call on God when they need him, some asking him for selfish things to boost their lapsing vanity—actually most all of them ask for selfish things, now that I think about it—with the exception of the one little lady who cleans the church floors and dusts the crucifixes; she prefaces the entire film by praying for all those who view Jesus, You Know. Now, that is truly someone who knows Jesus.