(photo credit: )
Directed by Hany Abu-Assad.
Written by Abu-Assad, Bero Beyer and Pierre Hodgson. Hebrew title: Gan Eden Acshav. 90 minutes. In Arabic, with Hebrew and English titles.
With Kais Nashef, Ali Suliman, Luba Azabal, Amer Hlehel, Hiam Abbass, Ashraf Barhom
Watching Paradise Now, a movie about two Palestinian suicide bombers planning to blow up a bus in Tel Aviv, is disturbing. And seeing the movie in Israel, is even more disturbing. Unlike in any other film during which you may find yourself shifting your allegiances and preconceptions as the story progresses, with Paradise Now, I never managed to lose sight of the fact that the characters were intent on blowing up me, my family and my friends. How true to life its characters and script actually are, I can't say for sure. I can say that it is an engrossing movie and one that presents a picture of Palestinians as a conflicted group, at least a few of whom are outspoken in their opposition to terror. It also presents an unflattering portrait of the inner workings of the terror cells, in which vulnerable young people are manipulated into making sacrifices that their leaders are not called upon to match.
Movies rarely change the world, but it seems possible that this movie might provoke some debate on both sides, and that can't be negative. Although many Israeli viewers may be offended by a movie in which suicide bombers are flawed human beings rather than mindless killing machines, Paradise Now presents a convincing case that they are, in fact, confused and may have a host of different motivations. As for legitimizing their actions, I don't think Paradise Now does that more than any violent movie legitimizes murder.
Directed by Nazareth-born Hany Abu-Assad, who has lived in Holland for many years, Paradise Now tells the story of two under-employed auto mechanics from Nablus, Said (Kais Nashef) and Khaled (Ali Suliman). The two don't seem to take life that seriously, nor do they seem to be particularly devout or fanatical Muslims.
Said is happy to flirt with Suha (Luba Azabal), a young woman whose late father was a famous Palestinian leader, and who has just returned home after years of living abroad. He is close to his mother (Hiam Abbass) and ashamed that his father collaborated with the Israelis and was murdered by fellow Palestinians. Khaled, on the other hand, is proud of his father, who was tortured by the Israelis and had his legs broken. Both of these young men live at home and neither seems to have any hope of marrying or moving on in the near future. Israel is an abstraction to them, since they have spent next to no time outside of the West Bank. Said says that except for a brief visit at age six to get medical attention, he has never been in Israel.
As they drift home from work, each is approached by a different representative of the same terror group and told that they have been chosen to carry out a suicide bombing the next day. At first, this request seems to come from out of the blue, although some dialogue in later scenes indicates that they had volunteered their services to this group in the past.
The identity of the group is never specified, not surprisingly. Although all its members are Muslim, its rhetoric is more political than Islamic. On the other hand, the group does woo them with promises of angels escorting them to the afterlife (although they are not promised dozens of virgins in the next world).
In any case, although the two seem stunned by the request, they both agree immediately. Some of the details of how the group prepares them psychologically to carry out their mission have a grim fascination. A representative is assigned to stay with each of them from the moment they are told of the mission until they head off for Tel Aviv with the explosives strapped to their rib cages. Said's handler, Jamal (Amer Hlehel), a teacher, is particularly pompous and creepy, going on about what an honor it is for Said to be chosen for this mission. He never explains why he doesn't do the deed himself, and Said never asks. Said does have his doubts and even slips out at night to return Suha's car keys to her. Sensing something is up, she speaks to him of her hopes for settling the conflict through peaceful means, telling him, "Don't you see what you're doing is destroying all of us?" But he dismisses her arguments and disparages her work for a humanitarian organization, telling her she is too rich and privileged to understand the reality of the situation.
Avenging his father's death is a strong motivator for him, since he blames the Israelis with whom his father collaborated more than those who killed him. "They [the Israelis] left me no choice but to be the murderer and murdered at the same time," he says.
The next day, the two are taken to make their farewell videotapes, which is a tragic-comic process, involving a malfunctioning camera, onlookers who snack loudly during the taping and Khaled's insistence on reminding his mother of a sale he forgot to tell her about. Following that, the two are shaved and given crew cuts, then dressed in dark suits, since their cover will be that they are traveling to a wedding. The black suits and short hair give them the look of corpses, as if they are half dead as soon as they agree to carry out the bombings. They meet the leader of their cell, Abu-Karem (Ashraf Barhom), a charismatic fighter who tells them, "Very few are granted this honor."
As they head out of Nablus, an unexpected turn of events separates them and from then on it's not clear whether Suha's arguments have convinced them to give up or whether they will keep heading for Tel Aviv.
Although it makes headlines when a would-be suicide bomber gets caught, as I was watching the movie, I wondered how many have had a change of heart and turned around at the last minute. There must have been some, but as this movie points out, they are not likely to get a warm welcome from those who sent them when they return home.
The bulk of the movie is made up of ideological debates among the characters. After all, it only takes a minute to show someone strapping on explosives and detonating them, so the director fills up the remaining time with various arguments for and against terror, which eventually grow repetitive. At one point, someone tells Suha that if she were not the daughter of a famous martyr for the Palestinian cause, she would not be allowed to criticize the extremist groups openly without repercussions. Her public and fervent calls for non-violence were the least convincing part of the film, since that is a Palestinian voice we hear so rarely. Perhaps the director is trying to say that in private, that is an argument that does get made.
The uniformly strong acting helps the movie overcome the often preachy political diatribes. The two lead actors, Kais Nashef and Ali Suliman, are utterly convincing in extraordinarily demanding roles. In the brief role of the terrorist leader, Ashram Barhom, who appeared in Colombian Love and The Syrian Bride, displays a striking screen presence. Luba Azabel does her best in the rather thankless role of the voice of peace and moderation.
In the end, although you may be appalled by the prospect of a movie on this subject, if you actually see it, you'll find this look inside the minds of two terrorists both fascinating and frightening.