Paradise Now is the second film this season to explore the terra incognita of current political psychology—namely the mind of a suicide bomber. Contrived but chilling, Hany Abu-Assad’s feature tells the tale of West Bank auto mechanics whose mission in Israel goes unexpectedly awry.
As its distributor has been quick to point out, this is a movie that epitomizes risk—and not just from a commercial perspective. Making Paradise Now was a heroic undertaking; the movie was shot on location in Nablus, as well as Abu-Assad’s hometown, Nazareth, with the filmmakers dodging near daily firefights and missile attacks while walking a cautious line between the Israeli occupying army and various Palestinian armed factions. The politics are similarly ambiguous or, rather, complex.
Audaciously as well, Abu-Assad imbues Paradise Now with a measure of dark absurdism. The youthful mechanics—Sa (Kais Nashef) and Khaled (Ali Suliman)—receive their assignments only a day in advance. The most elaborate preparation involves the videotaping of their farewell statements. (Later we discover that local video emporiums do a brisk business in the sale and rental of such martyr tapes—as well as their opposite, tapes that document the execution of Palestinian “traitors.”) A true filmmaker, Abu-Assad does not resist the temptation to restage the tawdry mise-en-scéne, amateurish overdirection, and maladroit camera operation involved in the making of the tape. He’s less specific regarding the nature of the cell that has recruited Sa and Khaled—it seems too secular to be Hamas, insufficiently ideological for the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade.
Paradise Now suffers from some odd continuity glitches and takes a few too many narrative curves en route to an overly convoluted ending, but the heart of the movie is as tense as the bus ride in Hitchcock’s Sabotage. Newly shaved and anointed, the human time bombs are sent off, amid a hubbub of prayers, to cross the green line (with surprising ease) into Israel. It is in this sequence, with the terrorists wandering in their “wedding suits” through a landscape that they have never before seen, that Paradise Now packs a powerful existential wallop. The friends are separated. Lost amid his potential victims, Sa experiences disorientation, doubt, and the stolid acceptance of his fate until, in the first of several reversals, it becomes necessary to sneak back across the border.
A Palestinian-Dutch-German-French co-pro, Paradise Now was also workshopped at Sundance, and as has been pointed out, it has certain Amerindie characteristics— including a carefully worked-out backstory and a number of didactic scenes in which the action grinds to a halt to allow for the expression of varied points of view. The prime vehicle for both is the cosmopolitan Suha (Lubna Azabal), a character who functions both as Sa romantic interest and his rational foil. Her politics are closer to those of Hanan Ashrawi. She opposes terrorism and argues for the power of public opinion.
Sa by contrast is acting from a sense of personal shame. “The crimes of the occupation are countless,” he tells her and then, in direct address, “I will not go back to the refugee camp.” He has his reasons. Paradise Now may not succeed in inspiring sympathy for these hapless terrorists, but it does compel an appreciation for the unbearable sense of humiliation that may fuel such acts.