film review By Chris Herrington
The Mind of a Killer
Paradise Now plunges into the psyche of the suicide bomber.
David Cronenberg's A History of Violence meditated on the role of and attitudes about violence, explicitly (but not exclusively) in America. Steven Spielberg's War of the Worlds evoked post 9/11 fear. Sally Potter's too-little-seen Yes was a poetic consideration of Western and Arab cultures coming together and falling apart.
These are all more commanding films than Hany Abu-Assad's new Paradside Now. But none is as relevant as a movie that, for Western audiences, humanizes the most despised of contemporary figures: the suicide bomber.
A native Palestinian, Abu-Assad's film is a Palestinian-Dutch-German-French co-production that was work-shopped at the Sundance Institute. The film focuses on two twentysomething friends, Said (Kais Nashef) and Khaled (Ali Suliman), from the West Bank village Nablus who are recruited for a suicide-bombing mission to Tel Aviv.
What is striking as the film opens is how normal Said and Khaled are. Their lives in Nablus seem rough but not desperate. They have jobs as auto mechanics and have concerns common to young single men in most countries: On a work break, they swap a bong back and forth while listening to Arab pop music and talking about women.
But this typical life is interrupted when Said and Khaled are approached, separately, by handlers who inform them they have been selected for a suicide mission; that they have been chosen to become martyrs to the cause of Palestinian resistance.
It's suggested that Said and Khaled had been recruited long ago and had asked to perform their mission together. But at this time we get little in the way of a rationale for why they've agreed to take such a step. And we don't quite learn -- probably a decision for the filmmakers' own safety -- exactly which Palestinian resistance/terrorist organization (depending on your perspective) has recruited them.
Said and Khaled receive their assignments only a day in advance of the mission, and their handler stays with them until the moment they're dispatched to make sure Said and Khaled don't say or do anything that could give away the plan.
Paradise Now might be most gripping in its meticulous depiction of the series of rituals that Said and Khaled undertake before being sent into Israel -- getting their heads and bodies shaved, having a final meal, getting the explosives strapped to their chests. Among these rituals is the taping of farewell statements, read into the camera while holding rifles. These "martyr tapes," we learn, can be bought or rented at Palestinian video stores. The martyr tapes are popular but not as sought after as the execution tapes of "collaborators" who are thought of as betraying the Palestinian cause.
Ultimately, Khaled and Said are dressed in matching "wedding suits" (their cover to get past the checkpoints) and sent into Israel, where each man has a momentous decision to make.
In cinematic terms, the film's desperate final section feels too convoluted, reducing what should be a more drawn-out, almost Hitchcockian suspense which the film finally finds at the very end.
Paradise Now is a brave film, not just for its subject matter, but for the fact that it was shot entirely on location, first in Nablus and then in Abu-Assad's hometown, Nazareth, after the film's location manager was kidnapped (and later released).
Abu-Assad's film takes on perhaps the most controversial subject imaginable and from a perspective likely to be at odds with most potential U.S. viewers. His film is not a defense of suicide bombers, but neither is it a condemnation. Rather it's an attempt to get into the heads of men who would be willing to take their own lives along with countless others.
Film title aside, Abu-Assad doesn't conceive suicide bombing in religious terms. As Said and Khaled are being led into their final preparations, Khaled asks one of the handlers, "What happens after you die?," his very lack of certainty suggesting a lack of religious fervor. "Two angels will pick you up," the man replies, not very convincingly. "Are you sure?" Khaled questions. "Absolutely," the handler says.
At first, it is Said who seems less certain about the undertaking, questioning the wisdom of following through on promise made long ago. But at the end, it is also Said who gets to make the case for the actions he might be about to make. Abu-Assad lets Said, born in a refugee camp and with a father executed as a collaborator, articulate the political justification for suicide bombing. The film doesn't pass judgment but holds the frame on Said as he explains and leaves the viewer to make up his or her own mind.
To the extent the film does have a perspective on the act, it might be embodied in the female character Suha (Lubna Azabal), who acts as a potential romantic partner for Said and as an ideological combatant. The Westernized Suha, who has recently returned to Nablus from France, is held in high esteem by the locals because she's the daughter of a celebrated Palestinian resistance figure. But Suha opposes suicide bombings on both moral and practical grounds, arguing with Said that the practice keeps the Palestinian cause from garnering the public sympathy it deserves.
But the best argument made in a film that assiduously resists taking sides is a perhaps incidental one. In shooting on location in Nablus and Tel Aviv, Paradise Now throws class divisions -- the rubble of Nablus contrasted with skyscrapers and the Westernized sleekness of Tel Aviv -- up on the screen. It suggests worlds separated by far more than a military checkpoint.
Opened Wednesday, November 23rd