When Paradise Now hit the theatres in 2005 to a lot of hype, went on to win the Golden Globe, and was nominated for an Oscar, controversy was inevitable. Israeli novelist Irit Linor called it a 'quality Nazi film,' and complained that terrorists just had to be played by bewitching hotties. Major Israeli distributors eschewed the film.
Meanwhile in the US, the glowing reviews it received may have admitted the film's humanising aspect, but focussed mainly on its success as a psychological thriller, as art. The 'Palestinian question' was left as an unhappy aside.
Directed by Hany Abu-Assad, Paradise Now is, more than anything else, a genuine testimony to the power of empathy. What happens when even the most horrifying and uncanny acts of suicide bombers are understood in terms of ordinary human fallibility? And what is possible, politically and otherwise, when the lives of others are no more just abstractions for a terrorist?
Said (Nashef) and Khaled (Suliman) are two young Palestinian auto mechanics who have grown up angry, witnessing the havoc wreaked upon their families by Israeli occupation. They volunteer for a terrorist mission. They aren't fanatics as we would imagine suicide bombers to be, but simple, thinking individuals craving for some meaning, control, and dignity in their lives. Once called upon, the two have different responses to their prospective martyrdom. Khaled is totally enamoured of the heroism of his death. Said is more perturbed. On the one hand, he is afraid of being branded as a traitor, like his father was, but on the other hand, he is not certain quite how sound his beliefs are. The two stories represent a harrowing struggle for reason amidst the pervasive paranoia of Palestine.
Paradise Now is not a defence of terrorism. The strong-willed, truth-seeking disposition of its uncommon heroes stands firmly against the skittish ways of the terrorist cell, whose plotters may preach about martyrdom but are conveniently far from death themselves. In fact, director Abu-Assad and co-writer Bero Beyer seem hopeful that a more forbearing kind of resistance is possible in Palestine, even if the character that embodies this hope-Said's love interest Suha (Lubna Azabal)-appears unsatisfactorily utopian and out-of-touch.
The film places its viewers in an uncomfortable zone where they are in danger of relating to and even loving the 'unlovable'. It is a brilliant irony, then, that a film about suicide bombers teaches us so much about love and respect. Kudos to Abu-Assad for capturing larger historical contexts in small, concrete images of reality. He can portray through the briefest gazes of his characters the inner turmoil of shame and humiliation in Palestine.
Paradise Now is a rare exploration of life and death, and of human body and soul.