film review *** 1/2: In Heaven or on Earth, ...Paradise Now...
Film Profoundly Poses Israeli-Palestinian Questions
By Andrew Guerra
Directed by Hany Abu-Assad
Written by Hany Abu-Assad, Bero Beyer, and Pierre Hodgson
Starring Kais Nashef, Ali Suliman, and Lubna Azabal
Now playing at Kendall Square Cinema
A certain amount of courage is required to create any sort of portrayal of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. To depict a conflict so deeply rooted and contentious is to invite controversy, particularly when the portrayal does not clearly favor one side, as is the case in “Paradise Now.” Perhaps for this courage alone should “Paradise Now” be praised. Yet it is the dedication to this fair-minded portrayal that truly deserves recognition. Through this balanced depiction of a polemical conflict, the film invites viewers to determine for themselves how to view suicide bombing, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and even wider questions on the meaning of dignified life.
“Paradise Now” follows the story of two Palestinians, Said and Khaled, first in their ordinary lives, then as they prepare for a suicide mission in Tel Aviv, and finally through the mission’s execution, as each struggles with whether he can follow through. At first glance, Said and Khaled seem to have fairly decent lives. In the beginning of the film, both have jobs working for a mechanic. Both have loving families. Finally, they both have each other, and the depth of their friendship only becomes more apparent as the film progresses.
Said also has attracted the attention of a young woman, Sula, the daughter of a famous late Palestinian resistance leader. Yet Sula was born and raised in France and Morocco, and her views reflect this foreign perspective. Her belief that suicide bombing forfeits the moral high ground and only leads to further violence is an essential counterpoint to the beliefs of the resistance leaders and Said and Khaled themselves.
It becomes apparent that neither Said, nor Khaled, nor even the wealthy Sula is free from oppression. The film subtly introduces the injustices of being searched, the nonchalance with which the sound of an explosion is met, the inability to travel, the lack of work, and the juxtaposition of the disrepair of the town in which Said and Khaled live and the clean, new Tel Aviv. Said and Khaled speak of a life without dignity, and it’s not difficult to imagine that they might feel as though their situation is intolerable.
Yet “Paradise Now” indicts both Israeli treatment of Palestinians and the Palestinians themselves. The Palestinian resistance leaders who recruit Khaled and Said for the suicide bombing mission are portrayed as casually sending the two friends to their deaths. These leaders also manipulate Khaled and Said to ensure they fulfill their mission through religion and displays of wealth and power. In addition, Khaled particularly is portrayed as thoughtless. He simply follows along with what he is told until extremely late in the film, when he is forced into confronting the implications and consequences of his actions.
While dealing with a very specific conflict, “Paradise Now” manages to utilize more universal themes and symbols to allow the audience to relate more directly to the proceedings on screen. The idea of a dignified life is raised repeatedly and the consequences of a lack of dignity and the methods by which one can fight to regain dignity are all explored. As is logical, the theme of sacrifice is also explored, as well as the worthiness of the sacrifice and what consequences it could have on others.
Loyalty is also a central theme of the film. It is portrayed in the loyalty of Said and Khaled to each other, loyalty to one’s family, as well as loyalty to ideals and organizations. These themes are universal and allow the viewer to more closely relate to the characters as well as providing a starting point for a consideration of the film as a whole. Finally, in preparation for their suicide mission, Khaled and Said have a last meal, which was filmed in such a manner as to evoke an image of da Vinci’s “The Last Supper,” again introducing an interesting comparison for the viewer to consider.
“Paradise Now” certainly isn’t perfect. The pacing, while appropriate for the mood of the film, is slightly slow. There is one point in the film when a character undergoes a major shift in opinion that occurs too quickly and without enough characterization. Finally, the plot also becomes somewhat predictable towards the end; yet these problems are minor. In general the acting is excellent, with a standout performance from Kais Nashef as Said. The cinematography is beautiful, the directing intelligent and intriguing, and the mood is perfect. When you go see “Paradise Now,” because you should, it will probably be the most thought-provoking film you’ll see all year.