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Friday, April 17, 2009

Review: Paradise Now (2005)

* * 1/2

Director: Hany Abu-Assad
Starring: Kais Nashif, Ali Suliman

Hany Abu-Assad's Paradise Now is an interesting film but not entirely successful once you get beyond the shock value inherent in its premise. I think that if you're going to make a film about suicide bombers, you may as well go all out but this one approaches the subject almost timidly. It always feels like it's holding back and while there are some good moments and one particularly great performance, how can I be bothered to feel much about it one way or another when the film won't push itself to the next level?

Said (Kais Nashif) and Khaled (Ali Suliman) are two Palestinians who have been friends since childhood and now work together in the same auto garage. Their lives are ordinary and quiet and even when they learn that the extremist group to which they belong has chosen them to carry out a suicide bombing in Tel Aviv, the way that they get ready to carry out their mission is still rather quiet. They enjoy a final evening with their families, they shave their beards and cut their hair so that they can pass as Israelis, they plot their movements for crossing the border and what to do if they're found out. They go through these motions almost passionlessly, saving their enthusiam for thoughts about what will await them on the other side.

When the time comes for them to make their way into Israel things go awry and the two end up separated. Khaled is able to return to the safety of the group but Said finds himself stranded, left behind first by the car that brought both him and Khaled to the border and then, later, alone in an empty building that was once the group's headquarters. To make matters worse, he has a bomb strapped to his chest that would blow him up if he tried to remove it himself. Said spends much of the film in a kind of Purgatory which allows him to reflect on his mission and his feelings about it, about what he's leaving behind and what may be awaiting him on the other side. Meanwhile, the group has become convinced that Said has betrayed them - ironic since the more time Said spends in this in between place, the more convinced he is of his mission - and Khaled is given a limited period of time to find him so that he can prove that he hasn't changed sides.

Said and Khaled are set up so that they're always occupying different ends of the spectrum. Both believe that the Israeli government has committed crimes against them, their families, their neighbors, etc., but at different times their views about the best way to compat the oppression and occupation are in opposition. At first Khaled is excited about the prospect of gaining glory by striking a blow against the enemy while Said is less certain that it's the right thing to do. As the day progresses their views switch so that Khaled comes to believe that there has to be a better way while Said has become convinced that it is God's will that he die in service to his cause. As Said, Nashif renders a well-constructed and thoughtful performance that is aided in no small part by the fact that he possesses that thing best described as "presence." The medium loves him and your eye can't help but be drawn to him whenever he's on screen.

Ultimately, your view of this film may depend a lot on your political leanings. Personally, I didn't find anything particularly incendiary about the various speeches denouncing Israel's treatment of Palestinians. I think, given the perspective from which the story plays out, these speeches are actually pretty tame, and while it's refreshing to see religious extremists portrayed as something other than screaming lunatics, that's also part of the problem. It's difficult to believe that people as calm and capable of reasoning as Said and Khaled can convince themselves that suicide bombing is anything other than counterproductive to their movement and cowardly. Further, while one may claim to be doing the selfless thing by becoming a martyr for the cause, if the specific motivation for doing it is to gain the riches of heaven then a) it isn't altruistic and b) you're not a martyr, you're greedy and impatient.

All in all, while the film does offer some unique insight into the conflict, I found it a bit too lacking in conviction to really find any meaning in how it ends.

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