The Chicago International Film Festival is proud to present Zaida Bergroth’s Maria’s Paradise as part of our Global Currents program this year. Based on true events, this “intriguing, well-heeled period drama” tells the story of Salome (Satu Tuuli Karhu), an orphaned teen who finds herself in thrall to Maria Åkerblom (Pihla Viitala) a charismatic cult leader who claims that God speaks to her. We’re thrilled to feature the latest masterwork by Bergroth, whose Golden Hugo-winning The Good Son and Miami captivated our festival’s audiences in years past. Below, we chat with the director about bringing her newest effort to Chicago and what compelled her to share this bizarre true story
What drew you to adapt this true story for film?
I was extremely intrigued by the stories that were told about this strange woman, Maria Åkerblom. Some people believed she was the angel of God, some people thought she was a dangerous psychopath who should’ve been stopped early on. I wanted to look at her through the eyes of somebody loving, and then we came up with a story of Salome, an adoring teenager who considers Maria to be her mother.
You won the New Directors Competition Gold Hugo in 2011 for The Good Son, and Miami was shown in the 53rd edition of the Festival. What excites you about bringing your film to the Chicago International Festival audience?
I am so excited to have this chance to show Maria’s Paradise the Chicago International Film Festival! It was a wonderful experience the first time and now our producer Daniel Kuitunen and our main actress Satu Tuuli Karhu will get to experience the same – I’m so happy for them. I loved the festival, the atmosphere, the films and I actually made some really good friends there as well. And of course, to get that kind of recognition meant the world to me in 2011. I feel that the Chicago International Film Festival is on my side, supporting me. I’m so grateful for that.
How have audiences responded to your film?
We had our world premiere at TIFF and the audience response was absolutely great. A lot of questions and a lot of talk about charismatic leaders and why we fall for them even if we know better. One encounter really stuck with me: there was actually a woman in the audience whose grandparents had lived with Maria in the 1920s in Finland and who had finally managed to escape with their five children. It was quite overwhelming to hear.
What do you hope audiences take away from Maria’s Paradise?
I hope the audience will get immersed in this strange world we created and I hope that by the end they will feel connected with our characters. Maria’s Paradise deals with the relationship between love and power: how wonderful it is to relinquish all responsibility, to love and admire unconditionally. I hope the film will raise interesting questions in the minds of the spectators – I hope they will have interesting discussions afterwards!
Maria’s Paradise screens Oct 26 @ 7:15 pm and Oct 27 @ 11:30 am with Producer Daniel Kuitunen and Actress Satu Tuuli Karhu in attendance. Purchase tickets here.