Just a hair under 100 years after her heyday, it seems that Maria Åkerblom is still casting her spell. Captivating much of her native Finland from the time she was a child at the turn of the century with the purported ability to commune with God and relay messages back to mere mortals, Åkerblom developed a following that grew to include a farm’s worth of lost souls during the 1920s and it is there that director Zaida Bergroth, working from a script by Jan Forsström and Anna Viitala, finds fertile ground for a story of a relationship between women that can be as nourishing as it dangerous in “Maria’s Paradise.”
After previously hitting the road with two sisters in her last drama “Miami,” Bergroth follows a young woman named Salome (Satu Tuuli Karhu), whose lack of parents may initially draw her to Maria (Pihla Viitala), but like all of Maria’s followers, she stays because she’s enthralled by her seemingly preternatural understanding of her needs, and unlike many of her followers, Maria finds Salome equally bewitching, quickly taking her off laundry duty and allowing Salome the privilege of combing her hair. The seeds of this unhealthy friendship are evident from the start as Maria’s powers of perception may not extend to the divine, but certainly are better than average in preying upon the vulnerabilities of her followers, yet it is Salome who hurts Maria upon befriending a runaway named Malin (Saga Sarkola), who takes refuge on the farm, and while Bergroth dutifully recounts an unbelievable true story, she locates within it the all-too-believable emotional turmoil that the women experience after being careful about who they place their trust in.
That modern insight is among the ways in which Bergroth brings “Maria’s Paradise” into the present, with a passionate performance from Tuuli Karhu matched beat for beat with a throbbing score and beautifully composed shots that seem to be seconds away from bursting apart, much like the main characters. Recently at the Toronto Film Festival where the film made its world premiere, Bergroth spoke about how she became intrigued with Åkerblom, putting together a cult onscreen and making the villa where they all lived so dynamic.
How did this come about?
I was first contacted by the producers, who had an idea about making a movie about Maria Akerblom, and I had never heard about her before, but the producers knew I had done these films before with complex-layered, female characters, so they thought Maria might interest me, and she did. It was fascinating. [Once I started working on it] I was contacted by some people whose parents or grandparents had lived with Maria, and half of the people really believed that she was an angelic saint and really a messenger of God. And the other half thought that she was a dangerous psychopath and somebody should have stopped her. So this very interesting [to me] and also about the religion and [this idea of] of wanting to be under somebody’s spell and wanting to have somebody up on the pedestal and show you or lead you to a right direction. I could relate, especially to our main character Salome, because the world is so complicated. [You want to ask someone] “Please tell me how it is, and please let me just let go of all the responsibility and I’ll follow you.” But what I found that was maybe even more interesting was that it wasn’t really Salome and these followers who were craving the acceptance and love. It was the leader who needed the love and admiration so bad that she couldn’t live without it anymore. That was the key for me.
Was it obvious from the start to make this a story on dual tracks and to show the followers’ side of it?
Yes, definitely. It is a coming-of-age story for Salome, but it’s very important for me that Maria is also [seen] from different perspectives, at least a little bit so we can somehow see that she is a human who has made this Faustian bargain. She has become an angel of God, but can she be a normal human person anymore? Can she ask for love as normal person? That I found interesting [where] you have made this deal, and now you have all this power, but then, you are stuck with it. You can’t be somebody who has all the normal needs of a human to be loved as you are.
You wouldn’t know it, but much of the film’s set in this single location of Maria’s estate. When you’ve just come off a road trip movie in “Miami,” is that an adjustment?
It was such a big difference. It’s so nice because I don’t think we spent two days in the same location when we were shooting “Miami.” We were running around all the time to different locations, and this whole film happens in this one villa, but I loved it because it felt so concentrated, and it felt right for the story that we can’t really escape. This is our world. These are our walls, and we are stuck with it. This is the only truth the followers know, and it was a real location [not a set]. This was a Finnish-Estonian co-production, so we started to look for the villa in Estonia, and then we found this wonderful place that felt really right with the dark cellars and attics and so many different kind of rooms. It reminded me of Hitchcock’s “Rebecca” [with] the same kind of grandiosity to it as “Sunset Boulevard.” and wanted to play with those elements a little bit to make it a bit fairytale-like.
The more I found out about Maria, it just felt right to make it quite dark, but I didn’t want it to become too heavy and unbearable, so I thought maybe playing around with these genre elements would help a little to get the needed distance every once in a while. Also, it fit Salome’s way of seeing the world where there is this friendship formed in the film and [that feeling of] starting to really care for somebody in a genuine way, not just admiring somebody, so I wanted to use a bit more poetic language during those moments.
How did you find the right actress to play Salome?
She’s wonderful. Satu Tuuli Karhu just graduated from theater school, and when she came for the audition, she brought something so genuine and so sincere that I fell in love with her, but this sense of youth and curiosity that really inspired me because [I thought], “Okay, I can push this character towards this direction.” [Salome’s] really obsessed with beautiful Maria, and she’s so ready to just let go of everything and be [Maria’s] favorite girl, and then when she meets Malin, this other teenager, she starts to question things and something magical happened [on the set] during the scenes between Salome and Malin because I felt, “Okay, now, we are dealing with real love.” It became more serious than in the script, [which] was maybe more lighthearted, but the [the actresses’] chemistry was so strong that I really loved those moments.
It’s been fascinating to see in your films these relationships that can be as comforting as they are dangerous. Is that something you’re attracted to?
Yes, I know, and there is something that attracts me to those themes, but I can’t really explain it. In real life, I’m quite diplomatic, and I don’t want to be in the spotlight, so maybe there is something in my films where I have this need to deal with these big characters that really burst with their emotions – complex people who really don’t keep [their emotions] inside. And it was really important to me [here] that Maria dared to be so vulnerable, and we have those short, little glimpses that we see that, she’s not on top of things. She’s like a lost little girl and then, in a second, she can do something horrible. I also really love the theme of family – it’s such a wonderful setup. You can’t really escape your family members, and in this film, it’s a cult, but still it functions like a family.
What was it like presiding over such a large group?
We were all joking that, “Okay, we are members of our own sect somehow” because the whole film crew stayed [at the house] and lived close by – nobody went back at their homes in the evenings – so it was a strange, wonderful summer, very concentrated, and it had its own strange atmosphere that I think is in the film.
But I was so nervous before we did that [religious ceremony] that’s in the beginning, because we needed to believe that to believe Maria. We had a wonderful group of Estonian extras who played the cult members, and they threw themselves in it, and they believed in it. We all sang together, and we had these hundreds of candles there, and we really tried to get the whole crew in the mood. I think we succeeded because it was a very intense day.
You actually use the music in the film to occasionally break it out of its period setting – I got a little bit of a Nine Inch Nails vibe at a few choice moments. What was it like working on the score?
The key when we started to think of the music was was from that preaching scene that when she’s lying on the bed, and then she gets up [as if guided by a divine hand]. I started to imagine what kind of music should fit, and the more traditional, classical approach didn’t feel right because I wanted her to look like this beautiful angel but have this really strong pressure of control. So I found this wonderful Finnish duo Kaukolampi and Puranen, who could bring the pressure and the strength that I was looking for. The key word was “ecstasy” – that kind of pressured ecstasy.
What’s it like to be premiering in Toronto?
It’s wonderful. This was the first time I saw it with an audience, and we’ll premiere in Finland in a couple of weeks, but it’s definitely very exciting time. I’m proud of the film, and I just hope that people will accept this gift I have tried to wrap.