Terrorism is the nightmare of these times, the sum of all our fears, the engine that drives the world's movie melodramas and war machines alike. But the more we see of it, the less we understand. What is the lure, for instance, of suicide bombing? Who embraces it? What can lead an individual to act on the boast "he who is not afraid of death is in control of life"?
"Paradise Now" answers all these questions, but not in the way you might expect. A powerful, poignant, provocative drama, it gets its strength from its dispassion, from an uncompromising determination to explain rather than justify or condemn, to put a human face on incomprehensible acts.
In a movie world that is more than happy to see terrorists as conveniently hooded and hackneyed villains, "Paradise Now" is an anomaly. Like the regrettably little-seen Indian film "The Terrorist" of a few years back, it understands that if we don't realize that recognizable human beings do these acts, we have little chance of stopping them.
Even more radical, this film has the nerve and skill to turn daily headlines into a heart-stopping story whose urgency is startling. A Palestinian-European co-production shot largely in the West Bank town of Nablus by a Palestinian director/co-writer (Hany Abu-Assad) now living in the Netherlands, "Paradise Now" was a sensation at Berlin, where it won three awards. You may think you'll be seeing this film for its relevance, but its life-and-death drama is what will keep you transfixed.
Even though we know the film focuses on what might be the final hours in the lives of suicide bombers, when we meet Said (Kais Nashef) and Khaled (Ali Suliman), our instinctive reaction is "It can't be them." A pair of regular guys, these genial, empathetic slackers, now employed at a West Bank auto repair shop, have been close friends since childhood.
Like many twentysomethings in movies, Said and Khaled are intelligent but a bit aimless, not really believing it when they say "one day things will be better." The only bright spot in either of their lives is Suha (Lubna Azabal), the beautiful daughter of a martyred Palestinian leader who's returned to Nablus after time spent in Europe and is attracted to the dreamy Said rather than the hotheaded Khaled.
Then, not for the last time, "Paradise Now" changes tone and direction. A friend named Jamal (Amer Hlehel) approaches, his face shining, with news out of nowhere. There is a suicide mission scheduled for the very next day in Tel Aviv and the two lifelong friends will get their expressed wish of carrying it out together. They are our bombers, after all.
"Paradise Now's" next section involves goodbyes without saying goodbye, as both men take leave of their families without being able to tell them that the next day is anything special. Said also takes the opportunity to visit Suha. Noticing a photograph of her father, he begins one of the film's several pointed political interchanges by saying she must be proud of him. "I'd rather he were still alive than be proud of him," she replies. "There are other ways to keep the cause alive."
Gradually, through this conversation and others like it, we learn the reasons, deeply personal as well as political, that have brought these men, not noticeably fanatical or especially religious, to a point in their lives where not having a meaningless death becomes a meaningful goal. We see the price paid for the humiliation of cultural dehumanization, and even if we completely disagree we grasp why Said and Khaled feel "under the occupation we're already dead" and "life without dignity is worthless."
After seeing the two men film surreal "martyr videos" and watching them suit up like matadors before a bullfight, all that came before becomes mere prequel as "Paradise Now" takes its final, most compelling twist into pure chaos.
By now we know and care about these two men, so the thought of their death and the deaths they intend to inflict horrifies and saddens us. Their story becomes increasingly terrifying as personal and organization forces come to bear on them and their decision in ways no one had anticipated.
What makes "Paradise Now" so effective from beginning to end is its determination not to take sides, not even by so much as a wink. A filmmaker since 1992, Abu-Assad and his co-writer Bero Beyer did extensive research on suicide bombers, and the director's determination to be evenhanded made location filming an enormously dangerous operation that nearly cost crew members their lives. Uppermost in Abu-Assad's mind is always the human equation, how impossible it is to be an individual put in the position of having to decide, starting with yourself, who shall live and who shall die. It is the question of our times.
MPAA rating: PG-13 for mature thematic material and brief strong language
Times guidelines: Adult subject matter
Released by Warner Independent Pictures. Director Hany Abu-Assad. Producers Hengameh Panahi, Amir Harel, Gerhard Meixner, Roman Paul, Bero Beyer. Screenplay Hany Abu-Assad and Bero Beyer. Cinematographer Antoine Heberle. Editor Sander Vos. Costumes Walid Maw'ed. Production design Olivier Meidinger. In Arabic with English subtitles. Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes.
In limited release.