Bringing a believable face to their characters is the ultimate goal of many dramatic directors. But for Hany Abu-Assad the challenge is embroiled by his highly controversial subject matter--the humanization of a suicide bomber.
Paradise Now takes an intimate look into the lives of two young Palestinian men living in a West Bank refugee camp. Born and raised in the fenced-off enclosure, the childhood friends long ago determined they would die together as martyrs if the requirement ever came. Now they've been approached by Jamal (Amer Hlehel), a point man for a nameless Palestinian organization that has planned a strike in Tel Aviv.
As the harsh reality slowly sinks in, Said (Kais Nashef) and his friend Khaled (Ali Suliman) are faced with the finality of the request. Unable to tell their families, the two men spend their last night at home, eating a traditional meal and trying to carry on their normal activities. In the evening, Khaled parades about with an almost hollow confidence, while Said deals more thoughtfully with what he believes is his ultimate fate. Sneaking out in the dead of night, he makes what may be his final visit to the house of his friend Suha (Lubna Azabal), but is powerless to tell even her about the plot.
The next day, the men, wired with explosives, slip through a hole in the barricade and head for the city. However, a setback stalls the mission, separates the men and gives each of them a chance to rethink his commitment to the cause. When Suha discovers their scheme, she desperately urges them to consider a more moderate approach to help resolve the ongoing conflict.
The lines between oppressor and victim, empty bravado and heartfelt conviction, sacrifice and revenge all blur at times. It's disturbing watching Khaled nervously recite his final martyr's message into a video camera while Jamal and the other calloused organizers look on casually munching pitas. Even more unsettling is when the men discover the recording didn't work and demand Khaled repeat his grave communication without any regard for the deathly position they've put him in.
Following the characters' painful journey allows the viewer to look at the complex reasons behind their difficult decisions, without condemning or condoning them. Some of the motivations explored are past experiences in the bombers' lives and the helplessness they feel in their situation. We also get a glimpse at the ache of those who may be left behind.
Brief strong language (in subtitles) and the depiction of smoking (both cigarettes and a water pipe) are included in the script. While violent portrayals are never more graphic than a tussle leading to a bloody nose, the whole premise of suicidal bombings brings an uneasy tension that builds throughout the production.
The remarkable acting, foreign locales and disquieting topic all mesh to create an uneasy observation of the region's ongoing conflict. For adults and older teens, this subtitled screenplay may spark discussions about the rationale behind the actions, alternatives to establishing peace and the human cost of war on both sides of the battle. While audiences can never approve of this desperate approach to peace, they may at least see a different perspective of conflict.