Paradise Recovered (2010)

Director: Storme Wood

The Talking Pictures Festival, April 14-17, 2011

By Marilyn Ferdinand

It isn’t easy in some circles—particularly the often intellectual circles of the diehard cinephile—to discuss fundamentalist Christianity with a straight face. The clichés that attend the subject are just too potent and subject to ridicule: the strange dogma, the humorless advocates breathing hell fire and damnation, the seemingly mindless and constant focus on God during nearly every minute of every day that drowns out the rest of life like a bug being flushed down a toilet. It’s hard for someone not in the life to understand the logic, which looks like illogic, or the compulsion many people feel toward religion, particularly a form of religion that is so severe in its rules and judgments.

However, I have seen firsthand a very nice person drawn deeper and deeper into fundamentalism. An ordinary woman in many ways, my next-door neighbor had a lot of children of her own, but also adopted several more. Her husband collected junk off the street, filling their home with at least a dozen broken water heaters, countless rusted bicycles, and every other sort of cast-off one can imagine to the point that the only passage in many of their rooms was a narrow aisle. He planted their front yard in such a haphazard way that their home seemed to be swallowed by an abandoned field of weeds. Their backyard was, like their home, filled to the brim with junk. The woman even built a fence around it specifically for my neat-freak mother so she wouldn’t have to see the junkyard as she attended to our tidy lawn and garden. Eventually, the woman was Born Again, and who could blame her? Wouldn’t you want to start over in a state of grace if your life had been made a living hell by your husband’s mental illness?

Esther (Heather del Rio), the central character in Paradise Recovered, is a young woman who escapes from a broken home and an alcoholic mother by becoming an adherent of televangelist Rev. Warren F. Vanderbilt (Richard Dillard). She lives with her pastor, David Sawyer (Andrew Sensenig), and his wife (Wendy Zavaleta), taking care of their young daughter (Anna Valerie Becker), doing housework, and tacking up posters and handing out fliers to residents of their Indiana town to come to the VFW hall on Sunday morning to watch Vanderbilt on television with them and pray. Pastor Sawyer is monomaniacal in his devotion to God, preferring to converse mainly in bible quotes and forbidding sins that the Pilgrims would have recognized: no movies, no dancing, no music, floor-length skirts for women, and certainly no fornicating. He seems to make an exception for alcohol because his wife certainly likes her wine.

Esther takes to heart Vanderbilt’s message to contribute money to the cause. Since she is an unpaid nanny and maid, she decides to ask Sawyer if she can get a job at a health food store that has a help-wanted sign in its window. He considers the story of The Virtuous Woman, and though Esther is not married, he finds reason in it to encourage her industry. Gabriel (Dana Seth Hurlburt), the store manager, hires her, and on her first day of work, Esther and the Sawyer family gather in front of the store to pray as though they were putting a protection hex on the place. Things are going to get interesting.

Gabriel is a philosophy student in college and a religious skeptic who has a strained relationship with his minister father. He is, in fact, very interested in religious faith, and engages Esther in a number of discussions about her beliefs and her church, the latter of which he finds abusive. He becomes especially concerned when Esther becomes engaged to Sawyer’s son Philip (Austin Chittim) after three days’ acquaintance. When Philip’s father throws Esther out when he finds Philip trying to bed Esther, Gabriel and his roommate Mark (Oliver Luke) take her in and begin her worldly education.

Appropriate for a movie about one of the oldest human constructs there is, Paradise Recovered has a very tried-and-true story structure: boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl. It’s not hard to see that Gabriel will fall for Esther. Despite their seemingly unbreachable differences regarding God, Gabriel’s childhood was steeped in religion. When he falls out with Esther, he turns to his father (Jim Aabear) for guidance, knowing that he needs to regain some perspective on religious belief if he is to understand her. Esther wants to be good more than anything in the world, but she does not take personal responsibility for developing an internal moral compass; it’s much easier for her to follow rules than to try to understand the reasons behind them.

Unfortunately, the script, like Gabriel, is pretty judgmental. Esther considers herself stupid, and wishes she could go to college; alas, she was home schooled, and the script seems to agree with her that she’s ignorant because of it. The script punts to a predictable scandal that shows her spiritual leaders to be charlatans or filled with disgust for humanity, especially women. And Esther’s plunge into “decadence” seems a little too easy for her, though one funny scene where she refuses to eat a slice of bacon (an “unclean” food) shows her pushing back. I got the impression that Esther had basically fled her home life, but later she says she was brought up in this church. The back stories are sketchy and a bit confusing, and the unknown actors who seem pretty green don’t have the chops yet to suggest a psychological history for their characters.

Yet, I found myself quite engrossed in this film. Heather del Rio isn’t what I’d call a beautiful woman, but she has an extraordinary magnetism and sensuality about her that made me believe that three young men could be fighting over her. She was just as attractive in her granny dresses as in blue jeans and camisole tops. Hurlburt is a handsome young man who was able to develop Gabriel’s growing affection for Esther in a very believable and affecting way. And Oliver Luke is the surprise of this movie. Think Nick Frost in Shaun of the Dead, but with more verve and personality, and you’ve got some idea of his skill. When Mark finds out he was able to score a date with Esther before Gabriel, his glee at beating out his more attractive roommate to a first date is wonderful, real, and quite funny; at the same time, when he deduces that Gabriel is in love with Esther, he becomes a caring friend who tries to help Gabriel win her.

This is Storme Wood’s first feature film, and his handheld camera work is effective and mainly unobtrusive. He knows how to shoot and time his actors’ lines for good comic effect, and he manages to work with some of his nonprofessional actors to bring out their sincerity, particularly Aabear, whom I can believe is a real preacher. He couldn’t do much with the caricature scripting, but he tries to help everyone maintain a level of humanity that more cynical films about religion ignore. On the whole, Paradise Recovered is an interesting, enjoyable film fit for the whole family.

Paradise Recovered screens Satuday, April 16, 5 p.m., at the Annie May Swift Hall, Northwestern University’s Department of Radio, Television + Film, 1920 Campus Drive, Evanston.

  • Pat spoke:
    15th/04/2011 to 1:24 pm

    Marilyn –

    Interesting post, and I appreciate your considered and fair-minded approach to the film.

    However, I’ll think a take a pass on this. As a person of faith myself (although no fundamentalist, I’ll hasten to add), I’m tired of seeing Christians depicted as either gullible sheep or easily vilified hypocrites. There are plenty of both in real life, but I’d argue that there are a far greater number who: 1) are perfectly capable of having normal conversations rather than proseletyzing, 2)have at least fleeting doubts or struggles with tenets of their faith, and 3) live lives that are pretty much consistent with the demands of the Gospel as they understand it – or, at least, try to.

    I wish their stories made it to the screen more often. (And they have on occasion, and if I had more time, I’d come up with a list of examples here.)There’s a wide middle ground between strict fundamentalism and agnoticism – unfortunately, it’s probably too nuanced and complex for most filmmakers to grapple with.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    15th/04/2011 to 2:37 pm

    I agree with you, Pat. This is one of the more fair-minded films I’ve seen, but it’s just too easy to score cheap laughs on the lunatic fringes of worship. I am actually very drawn to religious films, but haven’t been completely satisfied with most of them. I still think The Song of Bernadette is about the most perfect religious film out there.

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