In a run down Kenyan school, 50-year-old Austrian tourist Teresa (Margareta Tiesel) is shown around the classrooms by local boy Munga (Peter Kazungu). At the tour's end, Teresa thanks the school's headmistress and is told in no uncertain terms by Munga to “give her money”. Not batting an eyelid, Teresa rummages in her purse and hands over a bundle of notes. The headmistress takes them. “Why so little?” she asks.
A thread of desperation runs through Paradise: Love, an absorbing, soul-sapping drama that feels like a documentary. The first in Austrian director Ulrich Seidl's Paradise trilogy (which continues with Paradise: Faith and Paradise: Hope), it offers an extended glimpse at the kind of tourism you'll never find in Disneyland. Here, on the sandy Kenyan beaches, young black men gather to woo white women, hoping they'll become their 'Sugar Mamas'.
It's a straightforward transaction. The men offer up their bodies in return for money. Such is the case of Teresa, holidaying in an all-white resort with sun-soaked beaches and cocktails on demand. It's not long before she meets Munga, a gentle young Kenyan who doesn't appear to want anything in return for his affection. That is, of course, until she visits a local school. And his sister. And his cousin.
Margarete Tiesel as Teresa. Image: Soda Pictures
“In Africa, love is forever,” Munga tells Teresa. Love and sex are commodities in Paradise: Love, which puts the tricky issue of objectification on the heat and steps back to watch it boil. With its bleached beaches giving way to sweaty ghettos, Seidl's film could be accused of portraying an unflattering vision of Kenya. Except Seidl's clear on who the real victims are, not least in a scene in which a young Kenyan is ushered into Teresa's bedroom as a birthday present by her friends. The drawn-out festivities make for uncomfortable viewing.
Not that it's easy to condemn Teresa and her band of fellow pleasure-seekers. The very environment changes Teresa. We witness her going from a nervous wreck who can't follow through with her first rendezvous to casually enslaving the hotel's bartender and ordering him to fulfil her needs. This transformation is brilliantly handled by Margareta Tiesel, who is alternately haughty, spry and vulnerable.
It all boils down to desperation. Confounded again by a young man who turned out to have an ulterior motive, Teresa loses her rag – but quickly falls for the charms of a new suitor who appears on the beach. She wants that love and comfort, and she'll take it anywhere she can get it. The difference, Seidl eloquently tells us, is that she can escape the sweaty ghettos to play silly group games in a luxury pool, where thoughts of poverty and illness are far, far away.
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