- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 3, 2005

“Paradise Now,” clearly an ironic title as invoked by director and co-writer Hany Abu-Assad, is a mystic destination never reached by a pair of suicide bombers, Said and Khaled, whose mission from Nablus to Tel Aviv hits a few snags and has to be scrubbed.

A Palestinian who was born in Nazareth and makes Amsterdam his adopted home, Mr. Abu-Assad has dual Israeli and Dutch citizenship. He shot a great deal of this topical suspense melodrama in Nablus while it was still surrounded by the Israeli army. Getting through the workday depended on the indulgence of the Arafat apparatus and several Palestinian factions that might have taken offense at the content, which is weighted to demystify the notion of sacred sacrifice while wearing explosive devices and headed for vulnerable bus stops.

Said and Khaled, who have volunteered for this dire gesture sometime in the past, are introduced as auto mechanics employed at a sprawling garage and junkyard. Mr. Abu-Assad’s pictorial flair is evident in the establishing scenes of Nablus, permitted to open up in a way that has eluded the tunnel-vision coverage by TV crews. Suddenly, one gets a sense of a place as scenically hilly as San Francisco. It’s also sunny and populous and teeming with activity.

Said, played by Kais Nashef, emerges as the more reflective partner. His desire to cling to life is reinforced by a gravely handsome, widowed mother (Kian Abbass) and a new acquaintance, Suha (Lubna Azabal), a young woman who has lived abroad for several years and meets the friends on what could be the eve of their deaths.

Khaled and Said are spared by circumstances. A car meant to ferry them after crossing the Israeli border is spooked by a patrol, and the friends get separated while fleeing back into the West Bank. Said takes it into his head to recross and undertake a solo date with destiny. Then he changes his mind and returns to Nablus, where Khaled (Ali Suliman) has already been disarmed and debriefed.

Gallows humor shadows and cushions their failure from the outset. Khaled is obliged to do a retake of his obligatory farewell video, brandishing weapon and oration simultaneously. Given the cleverness of this stroke, it seems a bit odd that the director doesn’t show a bit of Said in front of the camera. But he gets a classical brainstorm: A presumed last meal with terrorist handlers is arranged to resemble the Last Supper.

Dressed to resemble Jewish settlers en route to a wedding ceremony, Said is a figure of bafflement to unwitting acquaintances on the return trip. They want to know what gives with the costume. Following up on Khaled’s video, the director diverts one sequence into a video shop that offers not only numerous martyr videos, but the confessions and grisly executions of accused collaborators. This gives a belated comic wrinkle to Said’s confession to Suha, a movie lover, that he participated in a riot that burned down the last cinema still operating in Nablus.

I doubt if Hany Abu-Assad is ready to bury the hatchet in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but with “Paradise Now” he has thrown some usefully sardonic and disillusioning cold water on aspects of the suicidal myths and platitudes that fuel terrorism in the Middle East.

**1/2

TITLE: “Paradise Now”

RATING: PG-13 (Sustained ominous atmosphere and occasional violence)

CREDITS: Directed by Hany Abu-Assad. Screenplay by Mr. Abu-Assad and Bero Beyer. Cinematography by Antoine Heberle. Production design by Olivier Meidinger. Costumes by Walid Maw’ed. In Arabic with English subtitles

RUNNING TIME: 90 minutes

WEB SITE: www.warnerindependent.com/paradisenow

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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