Review: Maria’s Paradise
by Marta Bałaga
- Finnish filmmaker Zaida Bergroth proves her versatility with a period drama that suffers from a lacklustre central performance
Save for a consistent fascination with twisted family dynamics, it seems there is simply no predicting what Finland’s Zaida Bergroth, a regular at the Toronto International Film Festival, might be up to next. She follows her breakout The Good Son [+see also:
film profile] and 2017’s Miami [+see also:
film profile] – which saw a timid young woman reunite with her exotic-dancer sister, as one bloody well should — with the solid period drama Maria’s Paradise [+see also:
interview: Zaida Bergroth
film profile], shown in the Contemporary World Cinema section of the festival. Set in the 1920s and inspired by the real-life case of one Maria Åkerblom (who passed away in 1981), a self-professed prophet who claimed an angel had appeared to her in dreams around 1912 and who then managed to gather quite a following, even a cult. She was so devoted, in fact, that even a stint in prison couldn’t diminish their love.
As in Miami, this new film similarly juxtaposes two radically different personalities, with the unassuming, mousy Salome (Satu Tuuli Karhu, recent Jussi winner for her turn in Happier Times, Grump [+see also:
film profile]) quickly becoming impossibly smitten with Maria (Pihla Viitala). Glamorous and powerful, Maria is a cunning spiritual leader but also a bit of a mother figure to those in desperate search for one. She also seems blessed with the ability to be exactly what people need her to be at any given time, be it a caring parent or a virgo intacta with papers to prove it and all, ignoring the burly man by her side and occasionally repeating “I’m on a mission from God” like another member of The Blues Brothers.
But Maria is only beguiling in theory. Maria’s Paradise, which one could reasonably expect to be built around the kind of multifaceted performance most actors would die for, doesn’t really explain Åkerblom’s phenomenon at all. With Maria pretty much relegated to a supporting part, and not a very engaging one at that, her charisma is only mentioned and remains to be seen. This might be the film’s point, since religious fervour does not belong to the realm of logic — be it in post-war Finland or one of those contemporary ‘celebrity churches’ so aptly captured in another Toronto title, Jorunn Myklebust Syversen’s Disco [+see also:
interview: Jorunn Myklebust Syversen
film profile]. But it’s almost as if Maria was already stripped of her powers from the film’s start, as if reduced to yet another Manson-like figure once the hallucinogens wear off.
It is very telling that, whenever Viitala is away, things pick up the pace, and not just because of the newfound freedom within the sequestered community. This is especially thanks to Saga Sarkola, a revelation cast here as Malin, a ‘street girl’ who has already seen it all, and yet – or maybe precisely because of that – remains surprisingly clear-headed about the craziness she begins to witness. She is wary of “Jesus freaks,” but happy to play the part, especially if it comes with a full board. Parts which are not of the showy, attention-grabbing kind are rarely this striking, and Sarkola pretty much steals the entire show, almost by accident. If Bergroth’s aim was to create enough space for a star-is-born turn, she has succeeded, although perhaps not in the way one might have expected. Then again, God moves in mysterious ways.
Produced by Daniel Kuitunen, Evelin Penttilä, Kaisla Viitala for Elokuvayhtiö Komeetta Oy and Stellar Film, Maria’s Paradise was made with the support from the Finnish Film Foundation, Cultural Endowment of Estonia and the Estonian Film Institute. Additional partners are YLE, Finnish Church Media Foundation, Promotion Centre for Audiovisual Culture and Film Estonia. International sales are handled by LevelK.
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