Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills (Joe Berlinger & Bruce Sinofsky)

Rating: **** (out of ****)

I don't know that I really buy that old saw about truth being stranger than fiction, but I must admit that the truth that Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky encounter certainly seems to be. Both more disturbing and more illuminating than their excellent feature debut, Brother's Keeper -- which is saying a hell of a lot -- Paradise Lost, which chronicles the murder trials of three teenagers in West Memphis, Arkansas, is still the best damn film I've seen this year ("still" because I saw it back in March, when it screened in the New Directors/New Films series). Those of you who balked at the omission of Crumb (a film I greatly admired) from my 1995 top ten list know that my love of narrative biases me unfairly against non-fiction films, and are probably somewhat puzzled at my enthusiasm for -- gasp! -- a documentary. There's no mystery, however: though it's maddeningly ambiguous, and provides little in the way of resolution (the juries reach verdicts, but that's about it), Paradise Lost tells a story -- a genuinely true story, no less, which features more hairpin twists and turns, more unforgettable characters, more incisive social commentary, and more sheer pathos than four or five first-rate fiction films combined. It's truly a humdinger, I kid you not. While the film raises numerous questions -- ranging from the dangers of nonconformity to the influence of a filmmaker on the events (s)he records (the latter, a subject of many recent documentaries, is addressed here in a very surprising and unexpected way) -- the most pertinent one, I think, is "How on earth do these guys talk their way into the very heart of people's private lives?!?" As in Brother's Keeper, some of the footage is so charged that you find yourself wondering how Berlinger and Sinofsky escaped with their hides intact, or why their subjects were willing to talk to them on-camera in the first place. Some critics have questioned their ethics, and perhaps justifiably so, but I must confess that I'm grateful for their persistence; their films reveal facets of human nature that are too often overlooked. Provocative, unsettling, and infuriating, Paradise Lost is a remarkable hybrid of the clarity of fact and the conventions of a cross between Hoop Dreams and Anatomy of a Murder. You say you don't like documentaries? See this one and get back to me.