Directed by Hany Abu-Assad
Written by Hany Abu-Assad
and Bero Beyer
Starring: Kais Nashef, Ali Suliman and Lubna Azabal
Taking place over 48 hours, Palestinian filmmaker Hany Abu-Assad's Paradise Now is intended as both a thriller and a provocative political film that sheds a light on the psychology of suicide bombers.
As a thriller, it's only fitfully suspenseful, and despite the ticking bomb premise, meanders a good deal in its plot convolutions. As a portrait of the absurdity and humiliation of life under occupation, the story is heartfelt but predictable. The director's two impulses -- to keep the audience hooked while illuminating the Palestinian plight -- never feel entirely compatible.
The principals are two young mechanics, Said (Kais Nashef) and Khaled (Ali Suliman) working in Nablus on the West Bank. Friends since childhood, they are members of an unidentified terrorist cell, which is planning its first major operation in two years. One the same day Khaled gets fired from his job for offending an overbearing customer and Said meets an attractive young woman, Suha (Ludna Azabal), the two are given their mission for the next morning: One will blow himself up in a public area in Tel Aviv and when police flood the area, the other will trigger his explosives.
They take this news of their deaths with apparent calm. "If it is God's will," says Said. Their leader, a religious teacher tells them there will "be two angels waiting" to take them to paradise.
But before the angels arrive, there are pragmatic details to see to. Each man bathes, shaves and cuts his hair, for they are to be dressed to look as guests at a wedding -- with a belt of explosives under their jackets. They must each make a farewell videotape, declaring their dedication to the Palestinian cause.
The preparations are filled with missteps: The camcorder operator has trouble turning the machine on so Khaled must repeat his well-rehearsed speech, with his gun in hand. On his second take, he remembers a shopping suggestion he wants to leave for his mother.
Finally, on the day of mission, the two men slip through a fence into Israeli territory, but things run afoul. The two men become separated and the other members of the cell panic, assuming one of them has turned traitor. The mood is less suspenseful than absurd, as the two well-dressed men wander around in an unknown country, with bombs wrapped around their stomachs, before sneaking back across the border, their mission briefly postponed.
There is a good deal of back-and forth, as one man, and later the other, questions his commitment. What begins as suspense transforms into a debate about the justification for suicide bombers.
Said, the explosive still taped to his body, finds time to engage in lengthy didactic speeches that justify murdering civilians for their cause. Because the Palestinians feel imprisoned, while the Israelis have claimed the victim role to the world, suicide bombings are not only an expression of despair, but an attempt at "equality in death."
The reprieve also allows Said to meet again with Suha, who, in contrast, abhors violence and believes that taking the higher moral ground is the only option for Palestinians facing Israel's military superiority.
The film is not only cumbersome in including these debates, but in its overcalculated dramatic structure as well. We learn that Said's father was executed for collaborating with the enemy, so he feels social pressure to redeem his family honour. Suha, in tidy contrast, is the daughter of a dead resistance hero.
Though Abu-Assad's sympathies are clearly with Suha, he offers no clear-cut answers. The perverse interchangeability of the martyrs and traitors is shown in a scene where the couple visits a local shop that markets the final videotapes of the pledges of martyrs and executions of collaborators. The latter, the video store clerk explains, are a slightly more popular item.
Such scenes are among the richest in Paradise Now, not because they explain or justify a culture of despair and revenge, but they show how, in the right pressure-cooker of shame and social pressure, even the unthinkable can seem normal.