It’s easy to label Paradise Now “that suicide-bomber movie,” but Dutch-schooled Palestinian writer/director Hany Abu-Assad’s quiet, tension-filled drama is anything but a justification of martyrdom. Instead, it’s a character study focusing on how the day-to-day degradations of occupation can slowly break down otherwise good, honorable men.
Said (brilliant newcomer Kais Nashif) and Khaled (Ali Suliman) are best friends living in the West Bank, just trying to get by in a world where gunfire and explosions punctuate the placid beauty of their surrounding country and squalid city like exclamation marks. On the day Khaled is fired from a mechanic shop where they both work, handlers for an unnamed militant group appear with great news: The friends have been granted the chance to martyr themselves together—the only way they agreed to go—and to, as they see it, fight back at the Israelis in the only way Palestinians have left to them.
The remainder of Paradise Now asks what drives a man to commit such an act, and inherent barbarism or promises of lustful virgins in the afterlife—common Western stereotypes—have nothing to do with it. Said is the first to balk, asking Khaled before they cross into Jerusalem through a hole in a security fence, “Are we doing the right thing?” Nonplussed, Khaled responds, “Is there another way to stop them?”
That is perhaps the most tragic of the characters’ degradations, a hopelessness that can’t even imagine anything other than violence. Even sadder, Said is more driven by humiliation. As he sees it, his family was shamed by his father, a collaborator who was executed by Palestinians when his actions were discovered. Said loves his father, despite his betrayal—it’s the Israelis he hates, for turning his good father into one of their collaborators. For this, he crosses the border with Khaled, explosives strapped to their torsos, intending to blow up as many Israeli soldiers as possible.
And it’s here, halfway through the movie, that a quiet drama becomes a taut thriller that finds terror in the silence of a missing soundtrack. A sequence in which Said considers boarding a bus filled with nonmilitary Israelis achieves a degree of tension superior to anything Hitchcock ever managed with his choreographed scenarios—just the thought is enough to leave you squeamish. Ultimately, Paradise Now provides psychological depth to a subject turned into a commonplace event by the evening news. It’s easy to dismiss suicide bombers as monsters, but it’s less easy to dismiss the people they were beforehand.