Dying for Undying Fame

Washington City Paper | November 4, 2005
If the theme of Jarhead is killers wanting to kill, the theme of Paradise Now is killers wondering if they should kill. In the West Bank town of Nablus, two best friends—glum Saïd (Kais Nashef) and extroverted Khaled (Ali Suliman)—are granted the career path they’ve been waiting for: At the behest of an unnamed Palestinian terrorist group, they agree to strap explosives around their waists, smuggle themselves into a public arena in Tel Aviv, and blow themselves up. For their efforts, they will win undying fame and a one-way ticket to paradise. “You are the one who will change things,” Saïd’s recruiter promises him.

Unable to breathe a word of their assignment, the two men spend their last nights with their families and then suit up—only to be driven apart at the first sign of trouble. As they try to put their mission back on track, they find themselves beset by mounting doubts, and they come to realize that their way of “changing things” might not change anything.

So long as Paradise Now confines itself to the workings of its suicide-bombing operation, it’s an engrossing film, with a screw-turning tension that recalls the great bomb sequence in Pontecorvo’s The Battle of Algiers and a memorably open-ended final shot that leaves the very future of peace hanging in the balance. (The film even makes room for black humor: Khaled has to keep redoing his “martyr video” because the camera breaks down.) Where the movie errs is in introducing Suha (Lubna Azabal), the young woman who tries to persuade Saïd and Khaled to abandon their mission. She’s there, clearly, as the voice of reason, but she doesn’t say anything that wouldn’t already have occurred to us, and every time she steps to the fore, Paradise Now becomes tendentious and ordinary.

Abu-Assad’s film (co-written by Bero Beyer) was assembled at great personal risk in the heart of occupied Palestine. (At one point, the director had to petition Yasser Arafat for the release of his crew’s location manager.) That setting, with all its smoldering fury, is perhaps the film’s most important “character.” But the filmmakers haven’t done enough to dramatize the intrusion of Israeli forces, so we can’t tell if the despair driving Saïd and Khaled is innate to them or an honest response to their surroundings. And while the protagonists are given “reasons” for their acts—Saïd’s father was an executed collaborator; Khaled’s was maimed by Israeli soldiers—these rationales pale in the face of the acts themselves.

Which only shows that even the best-intentioned movie can’t hope to “explain” suicide bombers. At least by giving them a face, Abu-Assad forces us to think harder about the costs of occupation—any occupation—while offering hope that the terrorist brain might be more fissionable than anyone suspected.CP

Washington City Paper

In a city where a great deal of attention is focused on national affairs, Washington City Paper maintains a relentless emphasis on local Washington. City Paper serves as the definitive local guide to cultural and civic life in the District...
More »
Contact for Reprint Rights
  • Market Served: Metropolitan Area
  • Address: 1400 I St. NW, Suite 900, Washington, DC 20005
  • Phone: (202) 332-2100