Paradise Now

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The suicide bomber has to be the most impenetrable enigma to the western mind. I don’t think we can even comprehend the idea of a young person, presumably healthy in body and mind, purposely throwing away his or her life just to kill a few people who are often not even a party to the conflict in which the bomber is engaged. We can wrap our brains around the concept of a soldier sacrificing himself as he runs up Omaha Beach into the teeth of a German machine gun nest, but there are two key differences. One, his death is not the goal but just a consequence and, two, the people getting killed on the other side are soldiers as well.

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Part of my incomprehension comes from my inability to understand how they could possibly think it would do any good. From the western perspective, an enemy willing to destroy himself to destroy innocents on the other side is not an enemy that can be dealt with rationally. Each suicide bombing drives us farther and farther from the belief that negotiation and peace are even possible.

Paradise Now shows us at least some sign that there are people within the Palestinians who understand that the suicide bombings are acts of impotent rage that do more harm than good, if they do any good at all, for the people left behind.

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Suha (Lubna Azabal) is not the main character of this movie, but she is the key character for western audiences. A French-born Moroccan activist, she brings a secular, outside view of the bombings and sees the damage they do to the cause of Palestinian statehood. For us, she represents the voice of reason. How much she is seen that way back in the West Bank and Gaza is an open question.

Make no mistake, this film is completely one-sided in sympathizing with the Palestinian side of their conflict with Israel. The Israelis are seen as faceless occupiers and oppressors. The question of this movie is not whether they are the enemy but rather how to deal with that enemy.

The film examines, with a fascinating level of prosaic detail, what will presumably be the last day in the lives of two lifelong friends, Said (Kais Nashef) and Khaled (Ali Suliman). They have been selected for a suicide bombing in Tel Aviv. Their handlers let them spend one last night with their families, although they can’t tell them anything about what they’re about to do.

The two men do not conform to our mental picture of suicide bombers. When we first meet them, they are working in a car repair shop when they are not hanging around smoking from their water piper. Khaled is the hothead, which gets him fired from the job, while Said is cool and reliable. He’s also attracted to Suha, whose car is in for repair, and she seems to return the feeling. Khaled is impressed because she is also the daughter of a famous Palestinian hero.

The two men are not outwardly political or even particularly religious, so we are genuinely surprised when their friend Jamal (Amer Hlehel) comes to tell them they have been selected for the next “martyrdom operation” and the two men seem actually pleased.

What follows is a somewhat surreal sequence as the two men are prepared for their mission. Despite the grim nature of the scenes, writer-director Hany Abu-Assad allows for moments of character-driven humor, such as when Khaled interrupts his farewell video to tell him his mother where to buy water filters. To introduce such light-heartedness into this subject matter is a provocative step, as is staging the bomber’s final meal like DaVinci’s The Last Supper. If Paradise Now is meant to be a plea for western sympathy, wrapping the subject of suicide bombing in Christian religious iconography is a bad misstep. Abu-Assad’s normally sure hand over this material reached too far with that scene.

After their mission is forced to abort and the two men are separated, we start to learn more about what has brought these two men to this point. Khaled is more political, driven by feelings of powerlessness against Israel. To be a bomber makes the Israelis powerless against him, leveling the playing field in a perverse way. Said’s motives are more personal, revolving around his father’s execution for collaborating with Israel.

Suha re-enters the movie as a counterpoint to the men’s thirst for revenge. Although she’s not allowed to offer up any constructive alternatives, she at least is able to argue the valid point that the bombings simply make life worse for those left behind.

Characters like Jamal, the shadowy handler guiding Said and Khaled down the road to self-destruction, seems outwardly sympathetic but ultimately insincere. Maybe I’m just projecting my own opinion onto these men, who I see as the worst cowards in the whole affair. If they are so committed to this cause, why aren’t they the ones strapping plastic explosives to their bodies, rather than sending more impressionable young men off to die in their place? I’m at least hopeful that Abu-Assad views these people in a similar unflattering light.

Paradise Now will not persuade anyone who is not already sympathetic to the Palestinians, but it is a well-written, well-acted and unblinking look into a world completely alien to western eyes. For that reason alone, it has some value. It might have come down more strongly against the violence or offered more concrete alternatives, but Abu-Assad has the right to make his own movie, just as I have the right to say I disagree with his choices.

3 thoughts on “Paradise Now

  1. Nehring

    Well said. Far better than I managed to get across.

    I’m big on worldview and messages (as you may have guessed) and the lack of condemnation in this film disturbs me. There are the elements Suha brings to the piece but she is ultimately useless. Yeah, she ropes in Khaled but I’m not certain he backs off at the end from a moral choice as much as cowardice.

    The film does come down on the side of the bombers by portraying them so lightly. Moreover, they unlying rationale for performing this kind of act isn’t questioned. Hatred of the Jews is fine and everything is their fault, but maybe we shouldn’t blow them up randomly. The thinking is still skewed.

    I disagree with your assessment that the two leads don’t conform to our image of suicide bombers. They were lower class, hopeless young men. That’s how I’ve always seen them. What image did you have in your head?

    Again, great review.

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  2. Nehring

    I see what you’re saying and I concur.

    This is what I mean when I say they were portraying lightly. The most fanatical person in the movie is the ignorant taxi driver. The handlers are morose and without any theological spark. While this makes the preparation segment more haunting, it is something that is clearly missing.

    Reply
  3. Paul McElligott

    I didn’t think they conformed to the stereotype because at no point did they seem explicitly religious or political. They are obviously Muslim but not outwardly fanatical until we find out they volunteered for this bombing. Said even seems to doubt that he will go to “Paradise” when he asks Jamal “Are you sure?” when they’re in the car.

    They fit the demographic but not the stereotype. I’d expect a person willing to kill himself to be more of a firebreathing fundamentalist in the rest of his life.

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