Paradise Now (2005): Palestinian Hany Abu-Assad’s Tale of Suicide Bombers

The Palestinian director Hany Abu-Assad meets the almost impossible challenge of giving human face to suicide bombers in his absorbing drama, Paradise Now.
That the two men are played by attractive actors makes the movie more engaging, bringing the story closer to audiences who have not encountered such screen characters before.
Grade: B (*** 1/2* out of *****)

Indeed, it’s a testament to the film’s intelligent approach and balanced tone that, no matter what your political line is on the long-standing Israeli-Palestinian conflict, you will be engaged in a tale that walks a fine line between a political thriller and a melodrama; here and there, the film gets bogged down by his overt Freudian psychology.

Timely and relevant in a way that most American movies are not, “Paradise Now” should become a breakthrough film, one that with Warner Independent’s right handling and savvy marketing should score in its fall release beyond the big urban centers. The movie premiered last year in Berlin, where it won awards, and is playing at the prestigious Telluride and Toronto Film Festivals, before its theatrical release in late September.

“Paradise Now” follows two Palestinian childhood friends, who have been recruited for a terrorists strike on Tel Aviv, embarking upon what may be the last 48 hours of their lives. Tightly structured and tautly directed, the yarn focuses on their last two days, during which they begin their journey together, separate, reunite, and separate again.

On a typical day in the West Bank city of Nablus, where daily life grinds on amidst crushing poverty and the occasional rocket blast, two childhood best friends, Sad (Kais Nashef) and Khaled (Ali Suliman), pass time drinking tea, smoking a hookah, and working dead-end menial jobs as auto mechanics.

Sad’s day takes a turn for the better, when a beautiful young woman named Suha (Lubna Azabal) brings her car in for repairs. From their spirited interaction, it’s apparent that a budding romance will grow between them. Shua keeps returning to the shop with all kinds of reasons and excuses.

Sad is then approached by the middle-aged Jamal (Amer Hlehel), a point man for an unnamed Palestinian organization, who informs Sad that he and Khaled have been chosen to carry out a strike in Tel Aviv. They have been chosen for this mission as a team, because each had expressed a wish that if either were to die a martyr, the other would want to die alongside his best friend.

Through expository family background, it turns out that Sad and Khaled have been preparing for this moment for most of their lives. They spend their last night at home, though they must keep their impending mission secret, even from their families. During that night, Sad sneaks off to see Suha one last time. Suha’s moderate views, having been educated in Europe, and Sad’s burgeoning conflicted conscience cause him to stop short of explaining why he has come to say good-bye.

The following day, Sad and Khaled are led to a hole in the fence that marks the Israeli border, where they are to meet a driver who will take them to Tel Aviv. But the plan goes wrong,when they are intercepted at the Israeli border and separated from their handlers.

Upon discovery of their plan, Shua imposes on them a moral crisis that forces each to reconsider his actions and their implications for himself and those around him.

We often read about suicide attacks in newspapers, but I can’t think of a film that has succeeded in dramatizing and visualizing this complex situation in a realistic yet emotionally satisfying way.

Youll find yourself thinking during the screening: How could someone do that What could drive young men to risk their lives How could they and their supervisors justify the loss of life to their families and to themselves.

The film was written by Abu-Assad (“Ford Transit,” “Rana’s Wedding”) and Bero Beyer. Though fictionalised, the script is based on interrogation transcripts of suicide bombers who had failed, various official reports, and interviews with people who knew bombers, their friends, and their families.

Sad and Khaled look and behave like ordinary guys: they work in a garage, they smoke hookahs, they socialize with families and friends, but they so committed to their country that theyre prepared to die for it. The two leads, Sulliman and Nashef, particularize their roles with their individual personality and charisma, and there’s good chemistry betwen them.

In a nicely handled scene, Said talks about the politics of his dead father and reveals the burden of that traumatic event on his own politics and contemporary actions. The climax occurrs at nighttime at the cemetery, where the trio meets and argues for the last time.

Abu-Assad shot the movie on 35mm, in order to distinguish it from the news footage that’s seen on TV. Looking realistic and credible, the movie benefits from its authentic locations. The film’s international crew consists of people from Palestine, the Netherlands, Germany, France, Belgium, Israel, and the UK. Abu-Assad had three months of pre-production in Nablus, during which the local cast and crew had to be found, and sets and locations had to be found or built. He then shot in Nablus for 25 days, before moving to Nazareth (in Israel) for another 15 days.

Though “Paradise Now” is grim and somber, one scene displays wonderfully poignant humor. The martyrs film their video statement, while holding guns and pausing for the camera, and Abu-Assad captures the irony of that situation by simultaneously deconstructing the martyrdom-heroism and the monstrous-evil dimensions of their act. During the shoot, the recruiter happily munches on a sandwich as the martyrs passionately declare their wish to die for freedom.

The helmer finds comedy and irony in the most tragic moments. How else can you react to a dead-serious martyr who fumbles his lines time and again, or a crewmember who forgets to turn on the camera, forcing the martyrs to do take after take of their ideological statements.

Some of the romantic scenes are weak, and some of the dialogue rings like self-conscious platforms, but overall the explosive (literally) drama is handled with sensitivity, and film’s flaw are minor compared to the magnitude of its achievement.

Though Abu-Assad is clearly critical of the suicide bombers, “Paradise Now” is bound to upset some viewers, while pleasing others. At the very least, the film should lead to an open, meaningful, and stimulating dialogue about issues of real politics.

There’s a danger that opposition will be based not on the reaction to the actual movie but on the very idea of the film. But it’s important to remember that it’s impossible for any film, as good and responsible as it might be, to do full justice to such a weighty and complex issue, one that touches on the very sacredness of life.

Written in August 2005

End Note: 

Oscar Context:

In 2006, Paradise Now won the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar in a race that included “Don’t Tell” from Italy; “Joyeux Noel” from France; “Sophie Scholl” from Germany; and “Tsoti” from South Africa.