Are films capable of humanizing murderers without also invariably asking audiences to have compassion for the perpetrators? Hany Abu-Assad’s Paradise Now offers no easy answers to that problematic question, charting the martyrdom mission of Palestinian mechanics Said (Kais Nashef) and Khaled (Ali Suliman) with a mixture of empathy for their grievances but condemnation for their methods. Set in the small town of Nablus during the 2004 Intifada, Abu-Assad’s often-gripping drama is not dissimilar from Oliver Hirschbiegel’s Downfall in its attempts to comprehend the motivations behind those who would commit atrocities against innocents in the name of politics or piety. And like that claustrophobic WWII drama, the film also finds it increasingly difficult to steer clear of partially sympathizing with its true-believer terrorist protagonists.
Having lost his “dignity” from the shame caused by his father’s execution for collaborating with the hated Israelis, Said—who, in a frightening photo shoot, exhibits the eyes of a hollow man already halfway toward death—eagerly accepts a sacrificial assignment to detonate a bomb strapped to his stomach in Tel Aviv with likeminded childhood friend Khaled. As he encounters opposition from a beautiful pacifist named Suha (Lubna Azabal) who decries those following in her famous suicide bombing father’s footsteps, Paradise Now posits an argument between competing modes of passive and aggressive resistance.
Detailing the duo’s final preparations (shaving, prayer, a meal staged like the Last Supper) with a meticulous efficiency that’s at odds with the story’s thorny central issues, the film finds bleak humor in Khaled being forced to re-tape his last will and testament video because of a faulty camera (while onlookers casually eat breakfast), as well as wrenching tragedy in Said’s last night with the loving mother and siblings (oblivious to his task) whom he plans to abandon. As portrayed by the superb Nashef and Suliman, respectively, Said and Khaled are motivated less by religious zealotry than by the emasculating humiliation they feel as a result of the Israeli military’s omnipresence (particularly armed border checkpoints), with Said unable to act on his romantic feelings for Suha until he’s reconciled himself to his fatal (yet supposedly empowering) fate.
In an arresting single-take speech during which Said lays bare the all-encompassing bitterness driving him to destroy himself in the name of national liberation, Abu-Assad captures the roiling resentment that compels many angry young men to such drastic, lethal ends. Yet by denouncing Said’s homicidal tactics only after passionately making the case for the necessity of immediate revolt against cruel, tyrannical Israel, Paradise Now winds up feeling as if it’s equivocating on the morality of suicide bombing in order to placate both peacenik and militant viewpoints on the Palestinian condition.