Finnish director Zaida Bergroth’s latest feature Maria’s Paradise comes lushly kitted out with fixtures and fittings entirely accurate for its 1927 setting, right down to the parrot-green color of a gramophone speaker, the shapes of serving bowls and the penmanship of the handwriting glancingly seen. However, this unsettling, nuanced, fact-based drama about a religious cult also feels of the moment, especially given its cult subject matter, Bechdel-test-friendly focus on relationships between women and the deliberately non-period, synth-heavy musical score credited to Timo Kaukolampi and Tuomo Puranen.
That tension between old and new, good and bad is pleasingly kept taut throughout by Bergroth’s confident direction, and twanged with precision by a fine cast led by Satu Tuuli Karhu as a brainwashed teen cult member torn between her worship of her guru (Pihla Viitala) and her new best friend (Saga Sarkola). It may be a little languid in terms of pacing in places, but its withering critique of the kind of amoral, charismatic figures who lead cults is timeless and would make this a good double-bill with, for instance, Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master.
Onscreen titles at the start economically explain that real-life figure Maria Akerblom (Viitala) claimed back in 1912 that she communicated with an Angel of Heaven in her dreams. Eventually, she gathered around her a following of zealots who believed that if they gave Akerblom all of their money and became her acolytes, they would eventually be saved.
In the film’s 1927 present, teenage Salome (Tuuli Karhu), the actual protagonist, is one such follower. She’s been in Akerblom’s entourage since she was a child, her mother having apparently died in the Spanish Flu pandemic after World War I, and spends much of her time looking after the younger children — such as motherless tyke Elsa (Ruut Neves) as well as a literal madwoman in a hidden attic-style room (Satu Mikkelinen) to whom Salome brings meals each day.
While Akerblom’s faithful followers live in relatively Spartan accommodations in the capacious but remote farmhouse the cult occupies, Maria herself enjoys more luxurious quarters. These she shares with her partner Eino (Tommi Korpela), a dapper figure who runs the cult’s administration while Maria recharges her energy for the night-time rituals when she affects to be asleep and channels instructions from Heaven to the assembled.
Using seemingly natural light from candles for these sequences, cinematographer Hena Blomberg gets across the theatrical artifice of the spiritualist milieu of the period, as well as its sensuousness. Indeed, a near ringer for a younger Marianne Williamson, Viitala gets across Maria’s vampish allure, a seductress selling Christian-flavored snake oil with smoke, mirrors and a hefty dose of mumbo jumbo.
Gullible, good-hearted Salome laps this slop up having known nothing else. However, when Maria takes her along on a shopping trip to the nearby town, Salome is instantly fascinated by the sight of 17-year-old prostitute Malin (an incandescent Sarkola) plying her trade. It’s as if Salome has been primed accidentally by Maria to feel drawn to women. Irreligious and naturally irreverent but still basically a kid herself, the similarly motherless Malin spots in Salome a sympathetic presence and seeks her out after she’s been badly beaten by a client. Before long, she’s brought into the cult as well, but her skeptical take on Maria and her way of running things with violence, threats and occasionally the use of deadly force against law enforcers who might stand in her way starts to erode Salome’s faith in the organization.
If this story, inspired by fact but focusing largely on fictional characters in Akerblom’s orbit, were being made by a different filmmaker, he or she might have opted to deploy a more overtly sexual subtext, perhaps making Salome and Malin lovers for instance. In fact, at several junctures it feels like things are going that way given the intense exchange of worshipful looks between the two young women. But Bergroth, whose previous features include Miami, The Good Son and Last Cowboy Standing, and working here with a script by Anna Viitala and Jan Forsstrom, doesn’t go all-out sexy with the material, which some will see as a cop-out while others will read a fidelity to the repressive norms of the period.
Nevertheless, the film does draw out the heightened, multilayered passion of intense female friendships, and even if no one here is having sex except Maria (with Eino), the struggle between the three women is undoubtedly an intense emotional love triangle, one with sharp deadly edges.
Production companies: A Suomen Elokuvasaatio, YLE, Nordisk Film, Eesti Film Institute, Film Estonia Cash Rebate, Estonian Cultural Endownment, Kirkon Mediasaatio, Komeetta Esittaa, Yhteistyossa, Stellar Film, Zaida Bergrothin, Elokuva
Cast: Pihla Viitala, Satu Tuuli Karhu, Saga Sarkola, Elina Knihtila, Tommi Korpela, Rein Oja, Jan Korander, Sonja Kuittinen, Satu Mikkelinen, Ilkka Heiskanen, Markku Maalismaa, Ott Aardam, Ruut Neves
Director: Zaida Bergroth
Screenwriters: Anna Viitala, Jan Forsstrom
Producers: Daniel Kuitunen, Evelin Penttila, Kaisla Viitala
Executive producer: Liisa Penttila-Asikainen
Director of photography: Hena Blomberg
Production designer: Jaagup Roomet
Costume designer: Eugen Tamberg
Editor: Samu Heikkila
Music: Timo Kaukolampi, Tuomo Puranen
Venue: Toronto International Film Festival (Contemporary World Cinema)