[Review of Faith & International Affairs, Winter 2005-2006]
In “Paradise Now,” a new movie from director Hany Abu-Assad, there’s a moment when the character Khaled (Ali Suliman) does a good imitation of a Wild West gunslinger. He faces a corner and then spins back out on one foot, turning toward his pals with a “quick draw” gesture and a grin.
The joke is that he has just had a set of explosives strapped to his chest. He and his friend, Said (Kais Nashef, an actor with exquisitely tragic eyes), are going to walk out of this abandoned tile factory in Nablus and, with the help of paid intermediaries, make their way into Tel Aviv. There they plan to find a likely spot, where one of them will pull the cord that sets off the bombs taped to his torso. The other will wait fifteen minutes, enough time for police and soldiers to cluster around the scene. Then he will do the same.
It is the genius of this film to compel the viewer to look at these two men as individual human beings, and not simply as crazy “bad guys.” This approach confirms a lesson we learned in the decades after the Holocaust, that eager finger-pointing at Nazis can have the surreal side-effect of persuading us that we are sinless. When we turn the enemy into something incomprehensible, inhuman, we assume that we can learn nothing from him. And if there are no lessons to be learned from horrifying tragedy, the tragedy is compounded.
So Abu-Assad’s film is careful and subtle, rather than agit-prop in either direction. (The direction he wishes viewers to tip is no doubt hinted by the film’s tagline: “From the most unexpected place comes a bold new call for peace.”) Thus, characters who make impassioned defense of violent action are countered by equally passionate arguments against it. We also see striking ambivalence within the two men themselves.
Khaled and Said are auto mechanics in Nablus, the major West Bank city surrounded by dozens of smaller Palestinian villages. It is a depressing cityscape, marked by bombed and burned-out buildings, with knee-high rubble lining the roads. Yet the two friends are much like young men everywhere, grumbling at the boss, joking, and sharing a smoke under the afternoon sky. A pretty young woman, Suha (Lubna Azabal), the daughter of a famed Palestinian leader, comes into their lives when she arranges for work to be done on her car. The film appears to be heading toward quietly-unfolding romance when everything changes in an instant.
Jamal (Amer Hlelhel), a resistance leader, appears and tells the men that the time has come for another action. It will be a double suicide bombing in the city of Tel Aviv, and Khaled and Said have been chosen. It will take place the next day. The men are stunned, but quickly agree. Jamal instructs them to spend the evening at home with their families, and to tell no one of the plan. When Said, sleepless, steals out to leave Suha’s keys by her door, she hears him and lets him in. She is a sophisticated and apparently a-religious woman, and a member of a nonviolent justice organization. . “Resistance can take many forms,” she says. “We must accept that we have no military power, in order to find other forms of resistance.”
Abu-Assam builds a careful tension, showing motivation on both sides, yet naturally and without a heavy hand. He weaves in humor, even at the unlikeliest moments: when the videocamera jams during Khaled’s staged final speech, he has to retake the shot, although the other guys are already at lunch hour and munching pita sandwiches.
In a private moment, Said asks Khaled: “Are we doing the right thing?”
Khaled replies, “Of course. In one hour we will be in Paradise. Under occupation, we are already dead.”
Said asks, “Is there no other way to stop them?”
The terrible event seems increasingly inevitable, but from the time the young men are dropped off for their assignment, nothing goes as planned. Wholly apart from the subject matter, the film is an excellent entry in the category of suspense flick, incorporating chases, hair-raising scenes, and intriguing shifts within the characters themselves. The movie keeps the viewer guessing right up until the last frame, and beyond.