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.
Yet neither chance nor choice will go away. By the time Saïd gets to the safe house, he is silently carrying along a second consciousness: his awareness of Suha (Lubna Azabal), who is beautiful and welcoming and has given him something to live for. As the daughter of a famed militant, she has impeccable nationalist credentials; and yet she is a disturbance, too, having recently come to the West Bank from the diaspora, bringing with her a culture and a politics more capacious than anything Saïd has known. Her wide smile and easy talk already make him wobble in the chamber. Then, when mishaps crop up in the mission–from a comically bungled videotaping to a dangerously mistimed rendezvous–Saïd finds himself literally on the loose, traveling through the landscape as an unguided human projectile.
And Khaled? He, too, is under unexpected pressure. Despite a temperament that’s ill suited to the task, he has to mollify the furious mission commanders, find his way to Saïd and save his friend’s life–temporarily.
So, in its form, Paradise Now is about a race against the clock, but also something more. It’s about the contrast between confinement and freedom of movement, a contrast that plays out simultaneously as physical, political and moral. Physical, because the action of the movie takes you from cramped streets and piled-up buildings into a space that’s so shockingly open it might as well have zero gravity. Political, because Khaled and Saïd say that the Israeli occupation is a “lifelong imprisonment” from which their mission is the only possible jailbreak. Moral, because however much they feel that they have no alternative, decisions always lie before them.
Some of these points emerge in the dialogue. But the remarkable achievement of Paradise Now is that the debates and speeches, though urgent, always function as part of a cinematic texture. It’s an action thriller; it’s a neorealist buddy picture. It’s something new in the movies, and extraordinary.
With some movies, you have to be careful not to give away the plot. With Noah Baumbach’s The Squid and the Whale, the big question is whether you should give away the metaphor. As a frankly autobiographical drama about a New York divorce–and a peculiar one at that, since so much of the ill will arises from the couple’s literary careers–the movie has relatively few narrative surprises to spring on Walt (Jesse Eisenberg), the teenager who is Baumbach’s stand-in. The suspense is limited to one question: When will you find out what the title means?
I might as well tell you. In the first place, the revelation won’t spoil your pleasure, and in the second, Baumbach has used this metaphor before, in his screenplay for Wes Anderson’s The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou (for which the present movie amounts to a decoding). To a child, quarreling parents can seem like monsters of the deep, locked in a deadly struggle.
That Walt, already in high school, still sees his father as some kind of leviathan becomes obvious at the beginning of The Squid and the Whale. He worships bushy-bearded, tweedy Bernard (Jeff Daniels), whose confidence in his ability to rank all other writers implicitly puts him at the top of the list. Bernard lords it over Walt (who submits willingly) and the would-be writers in his college class, meanwhile concealing the fact that he’s down to receiving two-line rejections for his latest novel. But his wife, Joan (Laura Linney), knows exactly where he ranks and won’t let him lord it over her any longer. Her average expression these days has her lips tucked partway back into her mouth, to help her keep down the rage. (It comes out anyway, when she won’t accept Bernard’s “notes” on her increasingly successful writing.) As for Bernard, he alternates between issuing pronouncements (which are all the more authoritative for being made in a low voice) and exploding into foul-mouthed vituperation.
Bernard likes to think of himself as “elegant.” By the end of the movie, Walt will have a different view of him, and of the mother he has so far despised.
Since this is a movie that focuses on two adolescent males–the other is Walt’s little brother Frank (Owen Kline)–the upheavals of divorce naturally get mixed up with the upheavals of young groins in heat. So the boys devote a significant amount of screen time to the question of what to do with the fluid once it’s been coaxed out, just as they’re always trying to figure out where to put their emotions as they shuttle between Bernard’s new home and Joan’s. With the parents (Bernard especially) having long seemed to be made of words, it’s distressing for Walt and Frank to discover that bodies are involved, too, bodies that evidently have demands as pressing as a teenager’s.
The Squid and the Whale is about as low-budget a picture as can be put into release these days. Shot on location in Brooklyn, it makes do with a handful of sets and the inside of Bernard’s car, and with a cast that’s hardly bigger than the nuclear family. (The main augmentations are William Baldwin and Anna Paquin as the new parental love objects, and Halley Feiffer as a classmate who would be Walt’s girlfriend if he didn’t think himself too grand.) Somehow, the smallness seems appropriate, given Walt’s need to shrink his parents to human scale.
Only two aspects of the movie are big: Jeff Daniels’s brilliant performance as Bernard (which is expertly judged to make the character a monster, if not one of the deep) and Noah Baumbach’s towering pitilessness. He’s as hard on Walt as on Bernard; and although he eventually softens his portrait of Joan, he does it only to bring her into the same cold light as the rest of the family.
If he hadn’t wanted the metaphor, Baumbach could have called this one Cruel Story of Youth.
* * *
Over the past decade, South Korean cinema has become a favorite on the art-house and festival circuit, celebrated for being brusque, violent, satiric, political and extravagantly good-looking. You may discover all these qualities, except for the last, in the nastily efficient drama The President’s Last Bang.
Written and directed by Im Sangsoo, based on the 1979 assassination of President Park Chung Hee, the film unfolds as twenty-four hours of whore-mongering, infighting, officially dispensed brutality, covert plotting and finally (for a long, nocturnal stretch) utter chaos. Some of this is hilarious, in an awful way. Baik Yoonshik (Save the Green Planet) stars as the smooth and canny Kim, director of the Korean CIA, whose motives for the assassination (in Im’s version) are a mixture of rancor at the belittling of his agency, disgust at Park’s dictatorship and despair at his own failing health. Han Sukgyu provides wise-guy, gum-cracking glamor as Kim’s chief enforcer.