The story that Hany Abu-Assad tells in Paradise Now is one we've seen many times on the evening news with what seems like immutable regularity: A young Palestinian, born in a refugee camp in the occupied West Bank, does his heavenly-cum-patriotic duty and becomes a suicide bomber. But of course, in America, we see the story from one perspective, while the people who live and die for their cause see it from another.
Paradise Now can't help being a polemic now and then. In real life, people talk about these things, and they don't always agree. Abu-Assad gives equal voice to both points of view -- sort of like a Palestinian Dead Man Walking -- and you sense which one he believes himself. But his film is not a debate. It's a microcosmic look at half a dozen people intimately involved in yesterday's headlines.
We meet Said (Kais Nashef) at work, repairing cars in his West Bank town and dealing with a surly customer. He remains civil, but Khaled (Ali Suliman), his co-worker buddy, goes postal on the guy and gets fired. The two are not having a very good day. Then, they get the call. In 24 hours they'll be dead in Tel Aviv, and they'll take some Israelis with them.
Said spends his last day communing with family -- his mother senses, even "knows," but says nothing -- and trying to sleep. The next morning he reports for duty, where he and Khaled pray, have a meal, and videotape their martyrdom statements (the camera fails repeatedly so they have to do it over and over). Khaled talks about how he wants to be remembered by the posters that will honor him. Said says almost nothing, and then it's off to cross the border.
After some complicating twists of his plot, Abu-Assad brings Paradise Now to its big real-life questions: How much oppression can people take, and how should they fight back when they don't have fighter jets? He clearly supports the ultimate Palestinian cause of winning a homeland, even when he writes compelling dialogue that questions the method of getting one.
His supporting characters add complexity to the story. Suha, the sophisticated daughter of a famous local martyr, was born in France and raised in Morocco, so naturally she opposes violent means (and infatuates the lonely Said). Jamal, young and fully bearded, runs the operation. And Said's gentle mother simply acquiesces to a rhythm of life that she's helpless to prevent. Her husband was executed a decade earlier for collaborating with the Israelis. Now she's going to lose her elder son.
Abu-Assad keeps his drama focused hard on its characters and their motivations. There's nothing said that you won't read on any good newspaper's op-ed pages, so Abu-Assad makes sure to say it well. When Suha derides Khaled's faith in God and eternal paradise, he snaps, "I'd rather have paradise in my head than live in this hell." Said's mother, afraid to speak the unspeakable, tries to dissuade him with hope: "The world changes. Everything changes. Except God. You'll see."
The debate comes down to a compelling monologue in which Said makes his best case for going through with it. He's under no illusion that his act alone will change the world. But he can't live in what he believes to be captivity any more, so he reasons that he and others can keep the pressure on Israel and eventually effect change. History will tell us if he's right. But at a local shop in Said's town, videotapes of collaborators sell better than videotapes of martyrs; the darker side of this nihilistic quip is that they're for sale in the first place.
Paradise Now is a disturbing film because of its unrelenting intimacy. You don't want to see these young men die; you also don't want to see them live in such frustration. And yet, Abu-Assad doesn't make the occupation palpable in his film: The military and the settlers are mentioned but never shown. What we see instead is the modest life of West Bank Arabs, and the billboards and beaches of developed Israel, as if Abu-Assad is showing his brethren the promised land, and asking them to think about the best way to get there. In Arabic, with subtitles.