A common criticism of Hollywood from the right side of the political spectrum is that it hasn't made any movies that deal with the war on terror, the way it did with World War II, for example. The truth is that it's probably less an example of political bias than of financial bottom line -- the only two recent mainstream movies to touch on the theme of America versus terrorists were Stealth and Team America, and neither made big bucks. Foreign and indie films, however, have been dealing with Islamic terror for quite a while now, from the anthology 11'09"01 to the more recent The War Within. And now Warner Independent has stepped into the fray, with the Palestinian film Paradise Now.
The mere mention of a Palestinian movie seems to raise immediate defensive postures on both sides of the debate over Palestinian statehood, as does the notion of a movie that might dare portray suicide bombers as three-dimensional human beings (a courtesy we never gave the Nazis back in the '40s, dontcha know). But Paradise Now, while taking a definite anti-violence stance, ventures even deeper into controversy by daring to be a black comedy. Oh, the last ten minutes or so are deadly serious, and the marketing focuses on how it's a call for peace, but the movie also has the sheer brazenness to find humor in the suicide bomber's experience.
We're not quite talking Dr. Strangelove here, though there is a discussion of Jews putting chemicals in the water to weaken Palestinian sperm that recalls Stanley Kubrick's classic antiwar absurdism. Director Hany Abu-Assad (Rana's Wedding) is no Kubrick yet, but would Kubrick have had the cojones to make Strangelove at, say, the Berlin Wall? Abu-Assad's shoot took place mostly in the West Bank city of Nablus, where men with guns would constantly admonish him to stop filming.
Saïd (Kais Nashif) and Khaled (Ali Suliman) seem like typical slacker mechanics when we first meet them, but in short order they are informed by their friend Jamal (Amer Hlehel) that they've been chosen for the next suicide mission against the Israelis. Neither wants to be involved without the other, but together they agree to go for it and undergo all the necessary religious and practical training. But when the time comes to slip through the fence into Israeli territory, things don't go as planned, and the two are separated, with Saïd getting lost. The terrorists are convinced he has betrayed them, but Khaled knows otherwise and pleads for a chance to find his friend so they can make things right. Meanwhile, Saïd's would-be girlfriend, Suha (Lubna Azabal), is starting to figure out what's going on.
One thing that's striking is the way that Saïd and Khaled's justifications for armed struggle and terrorism are almost exactly the same as American arguments for fighting against same. Negotiation was tried and it didn't work; better to fight for freedom than to live with oppression; even if we put down our weapons, the other side won't stop trying to kill us; political solutions won't work, because this is a war and the enemy thinks we have no right to exist. Argue all you like that the truth may not match the rhetoric; point is that the rhetoric seems to be universal. In a practical sense, it doesn't matter that, in a hypothetical Palestinian state, stifling Islamic laws would hardly be conducive to personal freedom; what matters to Khaled and Saïd is that in the here and now, the Israeli soldiers are the immediate oppressors, the kind of people who gave Saïd's father a choice as to which of his legs they would break.
Then there's the comedy, which surfaces particularly in the absurdity of strapping a bomb to oneself to become a hero. Khaled complains about the painful removal of his bomb, only to be told that, of course, no one designed them to be taken off. Martyrs summon all their courage to record vehement final testimonials on videotape, only to have to do equally passionate retakes when the camera jams. A video-store owner marks up the price of tapes depicting martyrs being shot, as they're his most popular item. Asked what kind of film genre his life would be, Saïd responds, "Is there a boring genre?"
Some won't appreciate the mix of tones, but none of the humor cheapens the film's final blow, nor is it designed to condone terrorism in any way. The chorus demanding more movies about our current war likely wasn't quite asking for this sort of thing, but you'll probably appreciate it nonetheless.
Get the Film & TV Newsletter
Stay up to date on the best new movies with our critics' latest reviews, interviews and trailers for the films coming to a theater near you each week.