Thursday, April 17, 2014

Film Atlas (Palestine): Paradise Now

Country: Palestine
Title: Paradise Now (2005)
Said and Khaled are best friends living within the Palestinian territories, working as auto mechanics. They are literally and figuratively spinning their wheels. Said’s malaise temporarily lifts while bantering with Suha, an attractive customer visiting from France. But before this relationship has time to bear fruit, Said and Khaled are informed by their local PLO cell that their applications for a suicide bombing mission have been accepted. This has been a long time dream much meditated by the two young men, especially Said, who wishes to redeem a traitorous act by his father. But while spending a last night at home Said sneaks out to visit Suha, and although wavering, can’t bring himself to tell her the truth.

The next day they shave, don suits, film short propaganda videos glorifying their ‘eminent martyrdom’ and are driven to a checkpoint where they will cross into Tel Aviv. But the plan goes awry; the two become separated and are unable to reach their target. Said considers blowing himself up on a bus, but balks at the sight of a child. Khaled returns to his infuriated handlers and promises to find Said before the situation deteriorates further. While scrambling about Nablus searching for his friend, Khaled meets Suha, who reasons him out of his plan. Said, on the other hand, bounces back from his crisis of conscience with ever greater resolve and agrees to a second mission. The film ends with Said riding a bus full of Israeli soldiers, moments before an unseen, unheard explosion.

The early 21st century saw a number of films attempting to humanize terrorists, religious fundamentalist or radical dissidents, but few had the psychological acumen and tonal grace of Paradise Now, without compromising the political implications of what remains an incredibly hot button issue. I figure that if at least a few people on both sides don’t accuse you of condoning atrocities or sympathizing with monsters than you’ve probably failed, but Paradise Now manages to successfully walk the fine line where it generously offends both sides. But it's never flippant. It's actually quite studious and well-considered; full of small character touches and dispassionate procedural details. Paradise Now gets under your skin, but treads carefully enough to avoid triggering knee-jerk responses, instead offering up characters with complicated motivations and opinions along with insight into the historical, environmental and psychological factors that inform their decisions.

Director Hany Abu-Assad, recently Oscar-nominated again for his new film Omar, is sensitive enough to sustain the dramatic impetus throughout the film, without feeling like he’s making a thriller. He’s helped by Kais Nashef and Ali Suliman who give brave, convincing performances, while Lubna Azabal, as Suha, far from functioning purely as romantic bait, sinks her teeth into the task of arguing common sense. What I like best is the contrast between Said and Khaled’s capacity to think and feel (their vulnerability in more than one sense) with their militant organization’s perfunctory and routine preparation rituals, nigh-wordlessly encapsulating the film’s thematic interest in the overlap between and limitations of individual choice and political agendas.

My Favorites:
Paradise Now
Divine Intervention

Major Directors:
Hany Abu-Assad, Elia Suleiman

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