3 stars (out of four)
In "Paradise Now," director Hany Abu-Assad takes on a subject that's as risky as they come, both dramatically and morally. This Palestinian-Dutch filmmaker tries to craft an even-handed, psychologically acute drama about terrorism, while filming in the actual locations--on the West Bank and Tel Aviv--where violence today feeds and thrives.
It's an explosive, nearly impossible task, and Abu-Assad and his gifted cast don't quite achieve it. Even though it was a triple prize winner at the last Berlin Film Festival, "Paradise Now" often seemed to me a bit too argumentative and didactic, and, especially in its last half, too contrived. It's an intricate, sometimes implausible ideological thriller that might be better as a smaller-scaled, less% preachy psychological drama.
Still, "Paradise" catches and keeps your attention because of its daring subject, real-life backdrops and the intensity of its actors.
The film's protagonists are two young Palestinian friends, Said (Kais Nashef) and Khaled (Ali Suliman), who are both recruited, on two days' notice, to undertake a suicide bombing in Tel Aviv. Said, an impassioned radical born in a refugee camp, and his seemingly less% fiery buddy, Khaled, are auto mechanics in Nablus on the West Bank, trapped in unpromising lives.
Their contact, Jamal (Amer Hlehel), is a more fervent ideologue, a plump, bespectacled extremist guiding them softly and smoothly toward slaughter. The film's least plausible character, unfortunately, is its most sensible one: Said's sudden love interest Suha (Lubna Azabal) is the eloquent daughter of a dead Palestinian hero, now herself a moderate, arguing for reason in the midst of chaos.
The first and best half of "Paradise Now" follows Said and Khaled in the day before the proposed attack--as Jamal prepares them for the suicide mission and as they make stilted propaganda videotapes and bid goodbye to friends and family (including Said's embittered mother, staunchly played by Hiam Abbass of Amos Gitai's "Free Zone"). These sequences, more dramatically riveting than what follows, are also more effective arguments against terrorism.
The second half of the movie then descends into wild melodrama. Triggered by the accidental separation of Said and Khaled after their dropoff, it's a more conventional chase thriller, interspersed with ideological debates that become as obvious as the chases. Even though the dramatic material--the qualms about their mission suffered by both Said and Khaled--has lots of potential, the cliches keep increasing and the tension keeps slackening.
Abu-Assad is the director of two previous films about Arab-Israeli conflicts, "Rana's Wedding" (2002) and "Ford Transit" (2002), films with more modest subjects that were also more convincingly shown: a West Bank Palestinian bride's hassles with bureaucratic wedding procedures in "Wedding" and the tensions aboard a Palestinian taxi bus with a mixed passenger list in "Transit."
Here, he might have been wiser to take a more modest approach in both halves of the film--and perhaps to include the Israeli point of view somewhere in the debate.
The occasional power of "Paradise" derives in large measure from the turbulent locations on which it was shot, at some risk to the filmmakers (six of whom left in mid-shooting after threats from extremist Palestinian groups.) Seeing that strife-torn region and its populace releases a flood of emotion as we watch the increasingly tangled thriller.
And though "Paradise Now" would have hit harder if it showed more simply how the region's traumas impacted ordinary lives, the film does give us a glimpse of something sobering, awful, chilling. It shows us lives that have become devoted to death, despite all reasonable arguments to the contrary.
Directed by Hany Abu-Assad; written by Abu-Assad and Bero Beyer; photographed by Antoine Heberle; edited by Sander Vos; production designed by Olivier Meiding-!er; produced by Beyer. A Warner Independent Pictures release; opens Friday at Loews Pipers Alley in Chicago, Landmark Renaissance Place in Highland Park and the Century Theatres in Evanston. In Arabic with English subtitles. Running time: 1:30. MPAA rating: PG-13 (for mature thematic material and brief strong language).
Said - Kais Nashef
Khaled - Ali Suliman
Suha - Lubna Azabal
Jamal - Amer Hlehel
Said's Mother - Hiam Abbass
Abu-Karem - Ashraf Barhoum