Khaled is the skeletal hothead with the Richard Widmark sneer. Saïd is more the Clive Owen type: a brooding hunk with soft lips and bottomless eyes. At the young men’s place of employment, an auto repair shop, Saïd is the one who tries to talk his way around an abusive customer. “Your bumper was put on straight,” he says soothingly. “It only looks crooked because the ground slopes.” When this explanation doesn’t go over, it’s Khaled who steps up with a crowbar to level the bumper by smashing it.
This scene, establishing the characters and social world of two young buddies, might have come from any film in the neorealist tradition, made anywhere in the world over the past half-century. If you’ve seen more than three such pictures, you can guess what will come next: The friendship will be tested, in circumstances that will include a tentative romance and a run-in with the law. Paradise Now fulfills these expectations; but it does more, because the setting is present-day Nablus, the love interest is the daughter of a slain Palestinian militant and the crime is a suicide bombing–or, as Saïd and Khaled think of it, a martyrdom operation.
Directed by Hany Abu-Assad (Rana’s Wedding, Ford Transit) from a script he wrote with producer Bero Beyer, Paradise Now is as well researched and responsible a movie as we’re likely to get about the who, how and why of Palestinian suicide attacks. Some viewers have faulted the film for assuming the miseries and humiliations of life under Israeli occupation, rather than demonstrating them; others have complained that the film sticks too closely to the experience of Saïd (Kais Nashef) and Khaled (Ali Suliman) and so may excuse their dreadful methods. But most people, I think, will see Paradise Now as a great balancing act in which Abu-Assad poses a set of moral and political weights atop his teetering, fallible characters.
As Abu-Assad is quick to state, Paradise Now is a movie, not a report or a polemic. In his interviews, including one conducted at The Nation, he has explained that the subject of suicide bombing allowed him to combine two of his favorite types of film, the action thriller and “the boring genre” (that is, observational works about daily affairs). Life in the occupied territories is so uncertain, he says, that if you just show people drinking a cup of tea, you’ve already got a suspense scene. Add a ticking bomb, and the requirements of a thriller are formally met.
By taking this cinephilic approach to his material, Abu-Assad in no way cleared himself of addressing the reality, which is why he prepared for the film by doing extensive research. But he was so determined to work within movie conventions that he insisted on shooting Paradise Now on location, in besieged Nablus, using 35mm film–a decision that risked his own neck and the many necks of his crew and ultimately proved unworkable, due to missile attacks and mine explosions and the kidnapping of his location manager. He had to complete the film in his native Nazareth–but by then, Abu-Assad had written Paradise Now into the history of impossibly difficult productions, from Intolerance through Fitzcarraldo.
More important, he had gotten an exceptionally good picture.
The momentum is continuous from very early in the film, when Jamal (Amer Hlehel), a fellow with a professor’s corduroy jacket and lecturing manner, draws Saïd down a deserted passageway to tell him that his mission with Khaled is set for tomorrow. To lend support to the volunteer in this joyful moment (and to keep him locked in), Jamal honors Saïd’s family by inviting himself to dinner and sleeping over in Saïd’s room. You feel as if Saïd has just turned into a bullet in the cylinder. And as you follow the stages of preparation the next day–the transfer to a safe house, the videotaping of a martyrdom speech, the fastening of the explosive belt and dressing of the bombers in inconspicuous suits (so they look like freshly shaved toughs from Reservoir Dogs)–everything contributes to the sense of a quick, claustrophobic one-way passage.