Everything is broken in Paradise Now -- the crumbling buildings, the battered cars. Hany Abu-Assad's darkly compelling feature is set in the West Bank town of Nablus, and the city's decay fills every corner of the frame, every aspect of the lives of two would-be suicide bombers, Khaled (Ali Suliman) and Said (Kais Nashef).
Paradise Now is an intriguingly ambivalent, uncomfortable film, one that reflects the circumstances of its making: Abu-Assad and his crew shot the film while firefights between the occupying Israeli army and Palestinian forces would break out around them. The film draws on the ensuing jittery tension, the disorienting tug between viewpoints to complicate its politics, its attempt to glimpse into the murky political and psychological terrain of suicide bombing.
Abu-Assad sketches out the parameters of Khaled and Said's lives with a drolly dark humor. Their lives are aimless, but the filmmaker captures a sort of lost loveliness: The two young auto mechanics puff on a hookah, listen to a Tuvan throat-singing tape, berate a miniscule boy for bringing them cold tea. Their lives are filled with a drifting ennui, a boredom punctuated only by moments of rage -- at a cranky customer, at water filters that don't work.
All of this changes when their handler, a callously self-satisfied “Islamic teacher,” comes to tell them they have been chosen for a suicide mission. Khaled and Said have signed up for this long ago, it seems -- their shocked surprise reveals how far removed they feel from the original pact.
Abu-Assad's film is a volatile mix of disparate elements: a bone-deep tragedy that toys with broad humor, a neo-realist work that is slyly self-referential about its filmic conceits. By basing his film in the drudgery of his protagonist's lives, Abu-Assad gives his thriller an existential weight -- they are waiting for a God who never comes to them. The history of the conflict has sculpted every aspect of their worlds, but they are powerless to shape it -- until now.
Abu-Assad is daring enough to leave his protagonists' motives hazy -- they don't seem to fully understand their motivations, so why should we? The film is mired in images of alienation and unknowability. Said doesn't want to smile for a stagy photograph, posed against an idealized New England landscape he'll never see. Khaled delivers his farewell statement in a scene that is a brutally brilliant convergence of absurdist humor and tragedy. The young man's impassioned address is marred by a tacky backdrop, a malfunctioning video camera, and the indifferent pita-munching of the crew. These artistic efforts to transcend death, to communicate through photographs and video footage are ultimately thwarted. In this broken-down world, Abu-Assad seems to say, no one, nothing can escape.
Not surprisingly, even their suicide mission provides no respite -- it doesn't come off. Their heads shaved, sweaty inside their “wedding suits,” they wind up separated, each embarking upon a desperate quest, one inside the West Bank, the other wandering among his would-be victims in Israel. Their parallel journeys provide a visceral, visual punch, depicting the contrast between the decrepit West Bank and a gleaming Tel Aviv, filled with high-rises and billboards and families at the beach.
The film occasionally flirts with becoming a twist-a-plot misadventure, taking one too many narrative turns and plunges into backstory. Actors stop short, cough up perfectly quotable opposing viewpoints. The character of Suha (Lubna Azabal), for example, seems penned forth to raise a political point -- the Western-born daughter of a martyr, she espouses peaceful engagement, a resistance that draws on dialogue rather than death. But the actors are so fiercely committed -- Nashef with his sad, down-turned dreamer's eyes, Azabal with her fiery gestures -- and the filmmaking so unwilling to be drawn into easy polemics, that Paradise Now escapes contrivance and becomes genuinely unsettling.
Jews and Palestinians are clinched together in a dark and dependent embrace, each a skewed reflection of the other, one of the would-be bombers argues. The Jews are both oppressor and victim -- so Palestinians become victims and murderers as well, he says. Abu-Assad gives his film the same shifting layers, depicts a world where martyrs' final statements are available at the local video store, going for the same rental price as footage of the execution of Palestinian collaborators. Who is good and who is bad -- none of it is answerable in the world of Paradise Now, a place where a person's experiences remain opaque, even to himself. It's all run-down, the buildings, the dirty water -- who can take flight in imagination and empathy, picture others' lives or a future for oneself? Said sits in his dark suit -- he looks like a Jewish settler on his way to a wedding -- ironic that this glimpse of Jewish life, of the other side, comes only when he is preparing to consummate the unholy bond of hatred and despair that fuels the conflict between the two peoples.
Abu-Assad can't provide his characters, his viewers with easy answers. But he does offer a calm, compassionate act of artistic witness, a glimpse into an interior landscape with no exit. “I'd rather have Paradise in my head,” Said says, “than live in this hell.”
Noy Thrupkaew is a Prospect senior correspondent.