Paradise Now (France/Germany/Netherlands/Israel, 2005)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

It's a risky proposition for any artist (director, author, etc.) to humanize a terrorist. In an era when many things have been reduced to black-and-white, the word "terrorist" has become synonymous with "evil." And evil can only be demonized. Because director Hany Abu-Assad chooses to peel away the stereotypes and look at the people who commit heinous actions, he guarantees two things: (1) his movie will offend a host of people, and (2) its prospects of commercial success are non-existent. Some viewers will see Paradise Now as an apologia for terrorism. Those who do, however, aren't paying attention. Abu-Assad's goal is not to condone terrorist actions (in fact, he goes to great pains to condemn them), but to explain why two seemingly "ordinary" men would be willing to sacrifice their lives in an act of mass carnage. The film offers food for thought, and reminds us that, in any war, one who understands the mindset of his opponent gains an important tactical advantage.

The carrot offered to many suicide bombers is an instant ticket to heaven. Angels will appear to escort the martyr to paradise, where virgins will be awaiting him. But, for the would-be bombers in Paradise Now, gains in the afterlife are not the prime motivation - although they're a pleasant fringe benefit. Said (Kais Nashef) and Khaled (Ali Suliman), long-time friends who work together as mechanics in the West Bank, have precise reasons for their intended action. Khaled views it as a political statement: only in death can Israelis and Arabs be equal. In life, Israel is the oppressor and the Palestinians are the oppressed. Death is the great equalizer. Said has more personal reasons for his actions - a ghost from his past that haunts him.

We aren't given many details about the plan - only that it has taken two years to put into motion and involves the two men undergoing a transformation from scruffy to clean-shaven, strapping bomb packs to their chests under suits, and detonating them 15 minutes apart in crowded sections of Tel Aviv. The man behind the plan is Jamal (Amer Hlehel), although we never learn which terrorist organization he represents. The voice of conscience is Suha (Lubna Azabal), Said's "sort of" girlfriend. Her view is that the bombings are wrong and the only way to achieve peace is by stopping the terror.

The film develops into a thriller when something goes wrong during the early stages of the plan's execution. Said and Khaled become separated and Jamal is convinced that Said may be betraying the cause. It's during this section of the film (roughly the last third) that Paradise Now is at its weakest. As good as Abu-Assad is at setting up the situation, presenting both sides of the issue, and developing the characters, he cannot generate the necessary suspense to make this a top-notch thriller. There are occasional moments of tension, and the final scene, despite being constrained by a sense of inevitability, is effective.

Paradise Now is a tough film because of what it attempts to do. It's a rare thing for a movie to present events of the Arab/Israeli struggle from the Palestinian side, where terrorists are viewed as "martyrs" and "freedom fighters" instead of killers. By making Jamal a sleazy character who is on a power trip (he mouths spiritual platitudes that he obviously does not believe) and by developing Suha as a strong character, Abu-Assad makes sure the movie offers balance while still achieving its aim. Even the most liberal viewers are likely to leave the theater with a deeply rooted sense of disquiet. The movie is not entirely successful - there are times when it is too talky and the "action" portion could have used some tightening. But for those who are willing to take cinematic risks, the experience of viewing Paradise Now is not without its rewards.

Paradise Now (France/Germany/Netherlands/Israel, 2005)

Director: Hany Abu-Assad
Cast: Kais Nashef, Ali Suliman, Lubna Azabal, Amer Hlehel
Screenplay: Hany Abu-Assad, Bero Beyer, Pierre Hodgson
Cinematography: Antoine Héberlé
Music: Jima Sumedi
U.S. Distributor: Warner Independent
Run Time: 1:32
U.S. Release Date: 2005-11-04
MPAA Rating: "PG-13" (Mature Themes)
Genre: DRAMA
Subtitles: English subtitled Arabic
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1