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Paradise Now

A Provocative, Insightful Political Drama

Directed and co-written by Hany Abu-Assad, Paradise Now is an unexpectedly sympathetic, if fictional, examination of the Palestinian men that due to poverty, despair, and, in some cases, religious fanaticism, become suicide bombers. For some, suicide bombers are driven by evil impulses and any attempt to understand them or their motivations is a useless, even dangerous, exercise. Abu-Assad would obviously take the opposite approach, using the search for causes as the necessary first step to halting suicide bombing in Israel and elsewhere.

Set in the Israeli-occupied Palestinian Territories (the West Bank and the Gaza Strip), Paradise Now follows Sad (Kais Nashef) and Khaled (Ali Suliman), childhood friends who, long ago, made a pact to die together as martyrs for the Palestinian cause of freedom against the Israeli occupation. Despite their intentions, Sad and Khaled go on with their daily routines, drinking tea, working as auto mechanics, striking up conversations with clients. Enter Suha (Lubna Azabal), a young, sophisticated Palestinian woman raised in Morocco and Europe, who brings her car into the auto shop for repairs. Sad and Suha strike up a conversation that, under different circumstances, would likely lead to a romantic relationship.

Sad is almost immediately approached by Jamal (Amer Hlehel), an operative for an unnamed Palestinian organization committed to violent resistance against Israel and its policies in the occupied territories. It's time, Jamal, tells Sad and Khaled, to fulfill their promise to become martyrs for the Palestinian cause. Sad and Khaled agree to participate in a mission where they will slip across the Israeli border into Tel Aviv. In a public space, Sad and Khaled will detonate the explosives strapped to their bodies. Suha's presence and her interaction with Sad on his last night before he goes on his mission, begins to affect Sad's resolve to continue with his mission (Khaled feels otherwise).

From there, Paradise Now follows Sad and Khaled from their goodbyes to their families through their preparation in an abandoned tile factory, where the men give video statements (prepared in advance) for their reasons for attacking Israelis. Sad and Khaled are also ritually bathed, shaved, and given haircuts. Afterward, the men are dressed in matching black suits, and given a last meal (Abu-Assad suggests a Muslim version of the Christian Last Supper). Sad and Khaled, recommitted to their mission, become separated as they attempt to cross the Israeli-Palestinian border.

To his credit, however, Abu-Assad takes the storyline in an unanticipated direction, a direction that hinges on a dramatic revelation about Sad's past that helps to clarify his reasons for becoming a suicide bomber. When Suha discovers Sad and Khaled's mission (easy to do given their black suits, black ties, and white shirts, clothes that mark Sad and Khaled as either guests at a wedding, a funeral, or as suicide bombers). Suha reacts in shock and anger.

Where Abu-Assad falters, however, is in giving his working-class characters searching, literate, and politically astute voices inappropriate for men of their presumably unschooled background. Abu-Assad veers dangerously close to converting his characters, if not into caricatures, then into talking heads for various political positions, which, at least in one case, leads to a doubtful, underwritten conversion. In addition, viewers unfamiliar with the complex, complicated causes and history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict may find it difficult to glean meaningful context or background from Paradise Now.

There's much to recommend here, however, including the rawness and authenticity of the performances, especially by the two sympathetic leads, and a verisimilitude that can be only derived by filming on location; Abu-Assad filmed Paradise Now in Nablus and Nazareth (in the West Bank) and in Tel Aviv, Israel. Abu-Assad never fails to remind us of the human toll that suicide bombing exacts on Israelis as well as the families and friends of suicide bombers, who bear the brunt of retaliatory efforts to stop potential suicide bombers from crossing into Israel. Paradise Now reminds us of the difficulties and complexities inherent in the struggle for a permanent, lasting peace, where meaningful answers are in short supply.

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars