That this Palestinian-Dutch-French-German co-production from Palestinian filmmaker Hany Abu-Assad should be playing the same week as Syriana is interesting. Both films deal with the topic of suicide bombers, and both have a good deal in common on the topic. In one instance — the actual moment of detonation — both are virtually (even creepily) identical. And both deal effectively with the fascinating and appalling process of how people are recruited into turning themselves into suicide bombers.
Abu-Assad’s film, though, differs on two very important levels: This is his film’s primary topic (in Syriana‘s case, it’s only part of the story), and it was made from a Palestinian point of view. Paradise Now also differs in the basics of why its two characters become suicide bombers, and the focus on their motives is less religious than political — though the two aspects are mixed by the very nature of their violent action, since part of the bait is an immediate passport to heaven.
With the filmmaker here being Palestinian, no surprise that his film comes at us from a Palestinian point of view. What may be less expected is the even-handedness of the presentation — something that keeps Paradise Now from sinking into simple propaganda. Yes, Abu-Assad clearly deplores the Israeli occupation (it would be ridiculous to think otherwise), but the point of his film is how much he equally deplores the suicide-bomber approach to resistance. Pragmatically, the approach allows the Israelis to continue to demonize the Palestinians as dangerous fanatics, while theologically, the practice is sketchy in its reasoning, since suicide is forbidden by the Koran and it requires considerable twisting and turning to conceive of martyrdom at one’s own hand. Humanistically and ethically, suicide bombing is appalling from every angle.
To make his point, Abu-Assad follows the fates of two young men, Said (newcomer Kais Nashef) and Khaled (newcomer Ali Suliman). The pair has been chosen to carry out a suicide-bombing mission in Tel Aviv. They aren’t very special, though. They barely eke out livings, and Khaled in particular is known for being unreliable and losing what jobs he does get. Their poverty and the hopelessness of their situation as citizens in an occupied land make them perfect candidates for the hard sell of “martyrdom — not just the assurance of “paradise now,” but the apparent glory that goes with it as a hero of the people.
Abu-Assad spares nothing in detailing the process, including the need to have someone “baby-sit” each man on what is to be his last night on Earth, something that in itself suggests a basic corruption of the supposed ideal. The business of shooting the men’s “martyr videos” is almost comical in its clumsiness — the camera doesn’t work, the “performers” are made to hold rifles with which they obviously have no familiarity, and everyone blandly munches on sandwiches prepared for Kahled by his mother while he attempts to deliver his speech.
The situation becomes complicated when the pair’s first attempt at getting into Israel fails and the Palestinians believe Said either has or will betray them. It would be a disservice to the film to reveal exactly what happens, but I can say that it’s ultimately devastating — and not just the actual climax, but an earlier moment when a disturbing fact about the videos emerges. It’s all compelling, and the film boasts an ending that leaves the audience sitting in numbed silence — you get the feeling it would be disrespectful to move or make a noise.
Paradise Now is not, however, entirely successful in explaining why anyone could be convinced to become a suicide bomber. The film is far better at examining the methods used by others to undertake such a thing, which in itself is fascinating (and can be applied to other not wholly dissimilar recruiting methods in less extreme circumstances). The likelihood of this film being around for more than a day by the time this paper hits the street is slim, so I strongly suggest a trip to the theater without delay if you want to see it. Rated PG-13 for thematic material and brief strong language.
— reviewed by Ken Hanke