What does it take for a sensitive young Muslim in his prime to strap on a belt packed with explosives and blow himself and the hated Other to bits—or to heaven, as his handlers insist? Not, or not just, fundamentalist ideology, according to Palestinian writer-director Hany Abu-Assad, who worries over that timely question in his absorbing, if unbalanced, drama Paradise Now, about an Arab suicide bomber prepping for an attack on Israel.
Like Joseph Castelo's recent and more florid The War Within, about a Palestinian engineer trying to do the same for Grand Central Station, Paradise Now is framed as a thriller, but in this case only with half a heart. Abu-Assad, who made the lovely 2002 film Rana's Wedding, is a far more gifted observer of the everyday than he is an action director, which is why, in Paradise Now, he productively sidetracks into a persuasive and often very funny portrait of the irrationalities of life under occupation. In the age of pontification about the Mind of the Terrorist, that's a plus.
Paradise Nowis also an agonized inquiry into the minds of a dispossessed new generation of Palestinians, who come off more introspective and internally divided than you'd think. Sad (Kais Nashif) and Khaled (Ali Suliman), two casually employed car mechanics in the West Bank city of Nablus (which lives under incessant siege from both Israeli military and Palestinian guerrillas), are recruited by a terrorist operative to carry out a suicide bombing in Tel Aviv. When the operation is aborted and the two best friends are separated, each in turn has his convictions challenged by the lovely Suha (Lubna Azabal), whose privileged European education has convinced her that a violent confrontation with Israel is both futile and immoral. The daughter of a local martyr, Suha is a clear stand-in for this peacenik filmmaker—which is not nothing, given the polarized passions that continue to turn that corner of the Middle East into a charnel house. But what gives the movie its juice is Abu-Assad's acute feel for the local, his wry appreciation—surely influenced by fellow Palestinian and master absurdist Elia Suleiman (Chronicle of a Disappearance, Divine Intervention)—for what it's like to live out one's days in a depressed, marginal economy under the boot of occupying masters and absolutist rebels.
Abu-Assad and his co-writer, Bero Beyer, deftly evoke the paranoia of the inhabitants, who spend money they don't have on water filters to remove chemicals they believe the Israelis have put into the water supply to lower their sperm count, and skewer both the speechifying bombast of the guerrilla groups and their callous cynicism toward their trainee martyrs. Late in the movie there comes a revelation that hints at what it is that makes a truly committed suicide bomber: not the ideology of hate, but humiliation, shame and the unbearable tedium of a life without a future.
PARADISE NOW WAS DIRECTED BY HANY ABU-ASSAD; WRITTEN BY ABU-ASSAD AND BERO BEYER; AND PRODUCED BY ABU-ASSAD, BEYER, AMIR HAREL, GERHARD MEIXNER AND ROMAN PAUL. NOW PLAYING AT SELECT THEATERS.
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