Coming soon to a theater near you: suicide bombers. Coming in celluloid form, that is, in Paradise Now–writer/director Hany Abu-Assad’s movie thriller that attempts to explain the mind of the Palestinian martyr.
The sort of understanding Abu-Assad is hoping to sow is troublingly close to rationalizing. Try to put that out of your mind for a moment. And set aside the following information too: Paradise Now was funded by a host of government-backed European film funds; it won the Amnesty International Film Prize last February; there aren’t any Israeli speaking parts.
In the end, however–perhaps in spite of itself–Paradise Now hits viewers with an intractable truth about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
The premise is simple enough. Saïd (Kais Nashef) and Khaled (Ali Suliman), two West Bank best friends, are living dead-end lives, smoking hookahs and angling for day labor, when they’re approached by old friends who work for an “unnamed Palestinian organization” (as the press material delicately phrases it). Their wish has been granted, they’re told. They’ve been selected to carry out a martyrdom operation in Tel Aviv, tomorrow. Khaled is elated. Saïd, not so much. He’s newly smitten with Suha (Lubna Azabal) and hesitant. Still, they both press forward and Paradise moves along, hitting its brief stride as a montage of the bombers’ preparations for death–ritual cleansing, last meal–plays out to the accompaniment of a sonorous soundtrack of Islamic prayers. A visceral parallel to the fiery underground cult-worship scenes in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom creeps in. As the bomb vests are strapped on, the unnamed organization’s ringleader tells Saïd and Khaled that any attempt to remove them will set them off.
Then it’s through a breach in the Israeli security fence and on to destiny. A surprise patrol separates the pair, setting off a frantic search as each tries to find the other (with Suha coming along for the ride) before he finds paradise. This could have been a riveting conceit, but Abu-Assad has largely squandered it by putting into his characters’ mouths arguments about the pros and cons of the Intifada, and long, dry expositions on the motivations for suicide bombing. Where the drama starts to sag, though, black humor picks up the slack, morbidly and perfectly exposing the guts of the situation. The mood is heavy as Khaled records his farewell tirades against the occupier . . . until the cameraman says the camera wasn’t working, so he has to do it again.
As he’s chauffeured to Israel, Khaled casually asks the ringleader, as if he were asking him to cancel his newspaper delivery, “What happens afterwards?” If you blink, you miss the look of excruciating discomfort flash across his face.
“Two angels pick you up,” he says.
“Are you sure?”
Is this exchange authentic? The movie certainly strives for authenticity. It was shot in Nablus, Nazareth, and Tel Aviv; members of unnamed organizations consulted on the set; the locations where Khaled and Saïd taped their goodbyes were the locations where real bombers taped theirs. Furthermore, the guns in the film weren’t props: They were once, and may be now, in frequent use. Another organization accidentally helped the producers and director get a real sense of place by kidnapping a crew member (who was released after the director pleaded to Yasser Arafat). Yet another faction pitched in by handing out fliers accusing the movie of being an American plot. Paradise Now has already been nominated for a foreign-film Oscar; this thank-you-filled acceptance speech will be one to watch.
Abu-Assad leaves much blank, however. Perhaps at the request of his consultants, he avoids any nasty scenes of masked men firing into the air, and parades filled with calls of “death to Israel”–implying that none of these play an important part in forming suicide bombers. And the well-worn explanations about the corrosive psychology of occupation, humiliation, and rage he puts forth can’t apply to Indonesians who detonate themselves in Bali, or Anglo-Muslims who explode in London.
But after the lights come back up, viewers will realize that details like these are just details. They will have spent 90 minutes clenched in suspense, holding on for that next shot, next scene, next frame, because it was all, jerkily but inexorably, leading up to that one moment. The dramatic question they’ve been asking themselves is not “Why are they doing it?” but “Are they going to do it or not?” The real revelation of Paradise Now is that the actual decision to blast oneself and others into oblivion is so frightening and primal that, in an instant, it dwarfs all the myriad circumstances that led up to it. Thinking about the root causes, and trying to empathize about them, hardly even occurs to the viewer as the explosion itself looms on the horizon. This is important: Israeli bus riders and café-goers have been living through an uncut version of Paradise Now for the better part of a decade. To really start the process of wrapping their mind around it, they, like anyone who sees the movie, need to be able to leave the theater, walk into an untroubled street, and think.
–Louis Wittig is a writer living in New York.