It shouldn't have to be spelled out like this, but in today's political climate, you never know—so, just to be clear, deliberate attacks against civilians are an unmitigated evil. But the people who commit these deeds are still made in the image of God. So when a film like Paradise Now—a fictional story about two Palestinian suicide bombers—comes along, the viewer is torn between two impulses: on the one hand, you hope the film will allow the atrocity to be seen for what it is, but on the other, you hope it will allow the characters' humanity to come through, in all its dimensions, without reducing their situation to propaganda. The trick, for filmmaker and audience alike, is, as always, to love the sinner but hate the sin.
This can be especially complicated when the film focuses so narrowly, as this one does, on the persons who are planning to commit the crime. While this approach does allow us to get to know them as people, it doesn't necessarily allow us to get a sense of the broader political forces at work. Saïd (Kais Nashef) and Khaled (Ali Suliman)—lifelong friends who have asked to be sent on a suicide mission together—occasionally allude to the fact that they are suffering for something that happened in their grandparents' generation, but what they mean by that, exactly, is never really spelled out. (Is it Israel's occupation of the West Bank, which was part of neighboring Jordan until the Six-Day War in 1967? Does it go back even further than that, to the creation of the Israeli state in 1948?) All that matters to them is that Israel is an oppressive occupying force that has shamed their people.
Shame is the key idea; as portrayed here, the suicide bombings have little tactical value, but are intended primarily as a way to regain both personal and national honor—as a way to prove one's loyalty to one's tribe, and as a way to demonstrate that the strong cannot always dominate the weak. One of the more striking features of this film is the way director Hany Abu-Assad charts the final hours of a suicide bomber's life: their heads are shaved, their bodies scrubbed, and their images put on posters—posters which, they are told, will bring glory to them and their families long after they have died. All this attention before their deaths, and the promise of even more attention afterwards, has a powerful psychological effect. After the bombs are strapped to his torso, Khaled spins on his heel and gestures as though he were a gunslinger; he seems to glory in the thought that he is like a cowboy, apparently forgetting that the hero idealized in so many Westerns followed a code of honor that forbade him to shoot anyone in the back, or anyone who was unarmed.
Religious motives are somewhere in there too, but almost as an afterthought. Khaled asks Jamal (Amer Hlehel), one of the higher-ups who has orchestrated the attack, what will happen after he and Saïd die, and Jamal looks away and, not very convincingly, mumbles something about angels coming to pick them up. More peculiar is the scene of Saïd and Khaled sharing their last meal with 11 of their associates; Abu-Assad depicts them all sitting on one side of a long string of tables, an obvious homage to Leonardo Da Vinci's The Last Supper. While a significant proportion of the Palestinian population—including Yasser Arafat's widow—is, indeed, of Christian heritage, it is not an image one ordinarily associates with Muslim terrorists. Does it reflect how they see themselves, or does it reflect how the filmmakers see them? Is it a sincere nod to the bombers' "martyrdom," or is it intended as irony? Jesus, after all, achieved our salvation by embracing the shame of the Cross.
As in so many Westerns, so here: the voices that call on our heroes to abandon violence are primarily female. Saïd's widowed mother (Hiam Abbas), who is unaware of her son's plans—he tells her he has found a job in Tel Aviv—holds out hope that things will get better for them. "The world changes," she tells him. "Everything changes, except God. You'll see." Saïd and Khaled also befriend Suha (Lubna Azabal), the daughter of a "martyred" Palestinian who explicitly says she wishes her father still had life, rather than glory. Saïd seems to be attracted to her, but every society has its pecking order, and he is held back by the knowledge that she comes from a higher social or economic class than he does.
Suha, for her part, represents the only strong voice against Islamic terrorism, but alas, she speaks from the point of view of a disbelieving secularist. Instead of arguing, as some Muslims have done, that the Koran forbids suicide and there is therefore no justification for suicide attacks—indeed, quite the opposite—Suha tells Khaled the "paradise" he longs for is merely in his head. Khaled scorns her reliance on secular human-rights groups, and says, "I'd rather have paradise in my head than live in this hell"—a statement some Christians might appreciate, for it has echoes of Pascal's wager and C.S. Lewis's Puddleglum.
While all the characters are united in their opposition to Israel—the only disagreement is over how to deal with the occupation—the film also drops several hints that there is something amiss in Palestinian culture, too. Men in small restaurants routinely call for the deaths of those who "collaborate" with the Israelis, and videos of collaborators "confessing" before their executions outsell videos of "martyrs" making their last statements before they go and die. A Palestinian taxi driver passes on a nutty rumor to the effect that Israel has poisoned the water to diminish the quality of Arab sperm. And when Khaled records his own video, he notices that Jamal is helping himself to the food prepared by Khaled's mother—a subtle sign, perhaps, of how these suicide bombers are exploited by their own leaders.
Abu-Assad dots the film with other metaphorical touches, and a surprising dose of humor, too. He is a little too conscious of the fact that he is making a film—in one scene, Suha tries to figure out which "genre" a movie about Saïd's life would belong to—and he tends to treat the speeches in which the bombers justify their actions a little too reverently (though he does undercut one such speech quite nicely afterwards). But he also does a good job of building tension and showing some of the complexities within Palestinian culture. He has, as they say, put a human face on the Palestinians. Now let's hope that someone can put a human face on the Israelis, in a movie that the Palestinians might want to see.Discussion starters
- Do you think this film reflects a particular political point of view? If so, what is it? Does it foster dialogue between different points of view? Where do you find your own sympathies lying, as you watch the film? Are any political points of view missing?
- What do you make of the way Abu-Assad films the political speeches? Is he encouraging us to sympathize with, or even agree with, the characters? What else might he be doing?
- What do you make of the film's depiction of the Israelis? Are they portrayed as people, too?
- Saïd says it is impossible to change your fate. Does the film make his fate look as inevitable as all that? Are there moments where he and Khaled make deliberate choices?
- Suha says there is no paradise, and Khaled says he would rather live with paradise in his head than with this hell on earth. Does Suha go too far, or attack religion itself? Can you think of other ways that she could have opposed Islamic terrorism?
- What do you make of Khaled's reply? How similar to, or different from, your own reasons for religious belief are they? How do we know what sort of "paradise" we should aim for?
The Family CornerFor parents to consider
Paradise Now is rated PG-13 for mature thematic material and brief strong language. The characters discuss current political and religious issues, including suicide bombing, and there is the threat of violence (including the sound of bombs going off in the distance), but no actual violence takes place onscreen.
Photos © Copyright Warner Independent Pictures
Copyright © 2005 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.
Saïd (Kais Nashef) and Khaled (Ali Suliman) are thinking about becoming suicide bombers. These two Palestinians, the central characters of a new thriller called Paradise Now, are headed for trouble. As their story shifts from the West Bank city of Nablus to Tel Aviv, their differing convictions about violence lead to actions that draw viewers to the edges of their seats.
But it's not just suspenseful—it's controversial as well. Should artists be inviting us to sympathize with terrorists? Is that what director Hany Abu-Assad's film is really doing?
So, how does this movie fare as an examination of sin? "[Abu-Assad] … does a good job of building tension and showing some of the complexities within Palestinian culture. He has, as they say, put a human face on the Palestinians. Now let's hope that someone can put a human face on the Israelis, in a movie that the Palestinians might want to see."
J. Robert Parks (Phantom Tollbooth) says, "Paradise Now is more suspenseful than any traditional thriller you'll see all year. There are twists and turns, with periods of waiting punctuated by genuinely exciting chase sequences. The movie doesn't have the huge explosions and fancy special effects of a blockbuster, but it does have something those generic films lack—genuine uncertainty. Because the movie doesn't telegraph the outcome, there are so many points when we're on the edge of our seats."
Mainstream critics find it to be breathtakingly suspenseful and brave.
Andrew Coffin (World) says, "More than religious zeal, even, a sense of indignity and inferiority motivates Mr. Abu-Assad's characters. Paradise Now paints a sad, fascinating portrait of two young men who think that death (their own, and, although this integral element is skirted, of the Israeli civilians they blow up) is better than that indignity."