Paradise Now

November, 2005, Drama

Directed by:Hany Abu-Assad

Starring:Kais Nashef, Ali Suliman, Lubna Azabal, and Hiam Abbass



Getting inside the head of a suicide bomber is an impossible task, but director Hany Abu-Assad comes breathtakingly close in this riveting examination of two Palestinian friends who agree to sacrifice themselves in retaliation for the death of a colleague at the hands of the Israeli armed forces. Without employing a single frame of actual violence, "Paradise" races through its 90-minute running time by analyzing why two attractive young men set out to willingly destroy themselves. 

Khaled and Said, twenty-something boyhood friends living in Nabulus, have all the charm and promise of youth; good looks, sardonic humor and strong ties to the families which nurtured them. Yet their bitterness at the state of affairs in Palestine has caused them to drink so deeply at the well of violent rebellion that they're selected to wrap themselves in explosives and set off for Tel Aviv to end their own lives in pursuit of random members of the Israeli military. Neither considers himself a terrorist; both insist they are freedom fighters, forced to use their only remaining weapon-a willingness to sacrifice themselves-in order to avenge past violence against their countrymen and create any possibility for the creation of a truly free and independent Palestinian state. 

The handlers of these two innocents are the most terrifying element of this tragic process; cool, articulate and careful not to allow the last hours of the bombers lives to go un-chaperoned, the planners wrap their human detonators in a mix of religious justification and litany of past Palestinian sufferings that's just as tight as the explosives locked onto their torsos. 

Working from a script he co-authored, the director critiques the terrorists' motivations without ever ignoring the far more appropriate alternatives they might employ, but those are always trumped by the pervasive sense of impotence that fuels the outwardly rational behavior of everyone involved. At one point, Said points out that Israelis see themselves as the real victims of the intifada, while he sees them purely and simply as the oppressor. He asks how anything good can come out of an occupying force driven by what he sees as such a schizophrenic view of reality, blithely ignoring the inconsistency of his own "peace through violence" rhetoric. It's a telling scene in a film full of them.

The screenplay makes claustrophobia another compelling ingredient in this lethal mix; young men without futures to match the boundless options presented on television, surrounded by the rubble of neighborhoods leveled in retaliation attacks and highlighted by the presence of military roadblocks that strangle the flow of the most mundane human traffic. Abu-Assad heightens this sense of compression by filming much of the dialogue scenes in tight shots which suggest little opportunity for personal space; while that makes the scenes with Said's family quite warm and affectionate, these camera placements also convey a sense that neither Said or Khaled have the opportunity for the kind of quiet reflection that might make it possible for them to see their options in a more balanced way.

The director contrasts the intensity of his characters' personal exchanges by shooting his superb locations with just the right mixture of direct exposition and casual, passing observation; the barren hills surrounding the city and its narrow, winding streets are juxtaposed with persistent but off-hand reference to garbage-littered streets and the decimated buildings that intrude onto sidewalks and roadways alike. Palestinian homes are nicely maintained, but public spaces appear mauled, nagging reminders of an ongoing urban war-without-end.

Isn't there a line in a Bob Dylan song which states "When ain't got nothin’, you got nothin' to lose"?  The venality of that lyric gets hammered home here; it's to the credit of this stubbornly even-handed movie that the sympathy Said and Kahled evoke doesn't flow from the reprehensible acts they perform but from the hopelessly misplaced motivations which lie behind them. These are not evil men, but painfully lost souls who, out of deep despair, do evil things. That may be a point of small consolation during this period in history when so much senseless suffering and death emanates from their tiny piece of the Middle East, but it's one well worth pondering. Paradise Now does a brilliant job of presenting it.

The verdict? Not easy and certainly not fun, but immensely worthwhile.          

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