Here’s the thing: there’s nothing we dread more than a film that’s been labeled "important," one that "everyone should see" (well, ones that are "based on a true story" come close). Who wants to see something that’s presented like a recommended daily serving of vegetables? So ignore the way they’ll inevitably promote "Paradise Now" as a chore, a didactic missive â€” it’s a startlingly good film on its own; at the very least, it’s the most emotionally profound and heartbreaking of the festival.
Maybe it’s not fair to compare them â€” Hany Abu-Assad‘s tale of suicide bombers in the West Bank deals with a subject matter so raw and relevant to global politics that it sears the screen. Abu-Assad, a Palestinian living in the Netherlands, actually shot much of "Paradise Now" in Nablus, the unstable city in which the film is set, setting up in refugee camps and filming in the midst of gun- and missile fire until several of his crewmembers quit and another was kidnapped. This isn’t filmmaking like you’ve seen before â€” often, when the actors quiver with nervousness or distress, it seems more genuine than perhaps is comfortable to watch.
The film follows two twenty-something friends, Said (Kais Nashef) and Khaled (Ali Suliman), who work together as mechanics. They hang out, they smoke a hookah; Said has an ongoing flirtation with the pretty, cosmopolitan Suha (Lubna Azabal), who seems to come in to get her car fixed more often than necessary just to talk to him. And then, suddenly, they’re both called upon for the "honor" of serving in the first suicide bombing mission in the area in two years, a retaliation strike in response to a Mossad assassination. They’d clearly agreed to this years ago, requesting to go together â€” the man who comes to claim Said, staying at his family’s house with him throughout the night, taught the boys when they were younger ("A good education is important," he, smiling, tells Said’s mother, who isn’t informed that he’s sending her son off to die the next day). We see all of the steps leading up to the pair clambering through a hole in the fence close to Tel Aviv, outfitted in trim black suits and explosives â€” at which point, something goes wrong, and the two are separated, left to spend the day searching for each other and questioning what they’re doing.
Abu-Assad set out to make a film that, while certainly not condoning suicide bombers, does attempt to humanize them, which means that there are quite a few discussions of different points of view on the matter of Palestinian oppression: impulsive Khaled tows the extremist party line and doesn’t seem to have given the issue much thought beyond how heroic he’ll appear; Suha, who’s works as a Palestinian rights activist, finds the act harmful to their cause and, when she figures out what’s going on, attempts to save the two; handsome, sad-eyed Said has the most complicated motivations of all, a mixture of the political and personal that he lays out in a devastating monologue towards the end of the film. For the most part, these dialogues seem unforced â€” lord knows, it’s a topic that would be on your mind most of the time.
Beyond a revelatory performance from Kais Nashef in what is his feature debut, the film’s highlight is its gentle, all-encompassing sympathy for its characters’ fundamental humanity, while refusing to pull punches as to the terrible nature of what they’re going to do. In one scene, Khaled, holding an automatic weapon, gives a pre-written martyr speech to a camcorder, to be distributed after the bombing. His delivery is frightening â€” and then he remembers something he never had a chance to tell his mother, and starts in that he saw cheaper water filters at another store, and that she should start buying them there. It’s a singular moment (not the least because that’s a hell of a ballsy place to slip in comedy) â€” but it works. Dare we say it? Everyone should see this film.
"Paradise Now" opens in New York and L.A. on October 28.