Paradise Now

Opens Fri., Nov. 4, at Harvard Exit.

Or, Dude, Where's My Car Bomb? This is a film guaranteed to make viewers very uncomfortable, regardless of how they feel about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which side is more aggrieved by the other, or whether a pair of slackers—an Arabic Mutt and Jeff—should be taken seriously in their political convictions. The tall one, Khaled (Ali Suliman), is more the clown of the piece. Questioned in his competency as a car mechanic, he'd rather destroy a repair job than give a customer the satisfaction of being right about a misaligned bumper. The short one, Saïd (Kais Nashif), is more easygoing; when a girl named Suha (Lubna Azabal) shows a little interest at their garage, he's solicitous, well- mannered, shyly attentive—a salesman who would never deign to outright selling.

So it goes with the movie. At first, Amsterdam-based Palestinian director Hany Abu-Assad presents future suicide bombers Khaled and Saïd, straight outta Nablus, like showroom samples without blemishes or defects. These are ordinary guys who want to drink tea, pass time, skate through life with a minimum of effort or ambition. Not political, in other words. That's why their decision to clean up and don suicide vests (hidden by Reservoir Dog–ish suits) is such a shock. We never see the decision; it was evidently a promise made long ago. Just as we're getting to know them and like them, soft-spoken Jamal (Amer Hlehel) arrives to announce that the time for an "operation" has come. "Death is better than inferiority," he tells them. Carefully concealed (like those bombs), the movie has sprung its deliberate surprise on us.

I quite liked the last film, Rana's Wedding, from Abu-Assad (see Arts & Culture, p. 38). It used the daily delays, roadblocks, checkpoints, and humiliations of Palestinian life for comic purposes, since nothing could stop its heroine from getting married. Rana was a girl who would not be confined. Now that context is tragic, and Khaled and Saïd are similarly determined—at first; then both express doubts when their initial plan is bungled, much like the recent terrorism movie The War Within. We rooted for Rana; now we root against Khaled and Saïd.

What's problematic, as the two later debate with Suha, is the stale circularity of their arguments. She says the Israelis use Palestinian suicide bombings as "an alibi" for their continued criminal misdeeds. Our duo answers, "Under the occupation, we're already dead." Which gets us precisely nowhere. Abu-Assad co-wrote the story back in 1999, and Paradise feels somewhat stuck in the past. Suha, the sympathetic, Westernized outsider, speaks for us. Yet Khaled and Saïd are too much the insiders; their thinking is bounded by closed-loop rhetoric that makes Abu-Assad's soapbox seem more like he's standing in a hole. It's natural for immigrants and exiles and prisoners to feel a certain nostalgia for what they once had. But show me an oppressed cause or class of victims that ever got anywhere without looking forward.

Abu-Assad isn't endorsing suicide bombers, of course, and there's no requirement that he criticize the logic (or lack thereof) behind their actions. He normalizes it, however, making it inseparable from his own political sentiments. He may not be on the same side as Khaled and Saïd, but he's of the same side. His movie does succeed in humanizing the fanatical stereotypes of the press (more than The War Within, certainly). Yet fanatics they are. Just because Khaled and Saïd have been humanized doesn't make Paradise a great film (it also suffers from a fair number of storytelling wobbles). Says Saïd, "A life without dignity is worthless." But so is a life spent killing innocents on a bus. He makes his point and refutes it at the same instant he presses the detonator. (PG-13)

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