Michael Almereyda’s latest documentary is a series of incidents, moments in time, collected over 10 years of travel. Drifting along more like a reverie than a travelogue, the film never indicates what city we’re in, keeping narrative exposition to a bare minimum. Opening and closing with images of airports and escalators, the camera peering up at blinking neon ceiling installations, the normal world is viewed through what feels like the trappings of science fiction.
It wouldn’t be a stretch to compare Paradise to Alphaville, what with its imagining of the modern as otherworldly, or to imagine it as a capsule made by an outer-space explorer who visits Earth and finds layers of mystery in the mundane. The final sequence has what might be tourists in normal clothes, with backpacks and cameras, donning blue garbage bags as makeshift capes and stepping onto the deck of what might be a ship gazing out at what seems like an epic rainstorm. It’s almost impossible to register the scene as an event, since it cries out to be a metaphor for discovery or apocalypse or something magical. Other sequences have children tapping wooden sticks against a charred tree, creating sparks, which may have been filmed in the deep woods behind someone’s house, bringing visual clarity to the term “magic realism.”
Many sequences take place in a more identifiable human world, such as a photographer trudging through deep layers of snow and climbing over a fence in order to take a picture of the landscape, or a little boy in Tehran curious about a swimming pool and hesitantly dipping his toe in, only to eventually fall. Many of the heroes of these individual scenes are dreamers who go to great lengths to explore something from a new perspective, suggesting Don Quixote bravely tilting at windmills. The filmmaker himself is very much present, and curious—sometimes interactive, when a child sitting in a car with him inquires about his pictures while he photographs a distant bird in flight.
There are no recurring characters, and the points of interest in the film will probably reflect the viewer’s interests and connections, but Almereyda makes several specific points of contact. Whether the title Paradise is meant as an optimistic and ennobling view of our world or as an impossible dream of what we aspire toward, the film haunts us with Almereda’s touching thought that “life is made up of brief, paradisiacal moments.” The moments are beautiful, strange, transient, often unpredictable, lyrical, and, of course, human.