A general low-level intensity rather than real emotional and political fireworks mark “Paradise Now,” recounting 27 hours in the lives of two Palestinian suicide bombers as they prep for and embark on a mission to Tel Aviv. Handsomely shot in widescreen, mostly on actual West Bank locations, and well-played by the cast, pic lays out the issues in an accessible but rather too over-correct way, seemingly eager to please all parties at the expense of real passion. Still, subject matter should ensure a steady fest career, with some theatrical pickups, especially in Europe.
Third feature by Palestinian helmer Hany Abu-Assad is, curiously, less involving that his breakout movie, “Rana’s Wedding” (2003), which, though a romantic drama, burned with a stronger fire about the inequities in Palestinians’ daily lives than “Paradise.”Though it has many fine qualities, “Paradise” feels like a victim of constant rewrites — script dates from four years ago — and a flattening effect of Euro involvement in the production. Anyone expecting a gritty, impassioned insight into the psychology of suicide bombers will come away disappointed; general auds may be better pleased.
Attractive young Arab woman Suha (Lubna Azabal) crosses an Israeli checkpoint on her way to the West Bank town of Nablus. Born in France, raised in Morocco and from a well-off family, Suha has a cross-tracks liking for Said (Kais Nashef), a Palestinian raised in a refugee camp. Said works at a small garage business with his pal, fellow Palestinian Khaled (Ali Suliman).
For Said and Khaled, it’s just another lazy afternoon in Nablus, drinking tea and smoking a nargilah on the side of a hill overlooking the town in which they’re boxed in by Israeli authorities. Until, that is, Jamal (Amer Hlehel), their point man for an unnamed guerrilla org, takes Said aside and tells them he and Khaled have been chosen for a suicide bombing in Tel Aviv, in response to the recent killing of two Arabs.
For security, Jamal stays at Said’s side, as Said returns home for what is to be his final night with his mother (vet Hiam Abbass, from “The Syrian Bride”). Said manages to sneak away in the middle of the night for a meeting with Suha, which ends on an unresolved emotional note, and him not letting on about his mission.
The simplicity of these scenes, as Said and Khaled accept the assignment with a quiet pride and serenity, has a power of its own, reinforced by equally spare scenes the following morning of him and Khaled being bathed, purified and given a final meal by the guerrilla group. Tone is less intense than similar scenes in last year’s docudrama, “The Hamburg Cell,” about some of the 9/11 participants.
With the addition of some humor in a sequence where the two record their final testament and are forced to do a retake when the vidcam goes on the fritz, helmer seems to be making it clear that “Paradise Now” is pitched at a far more mainstream level that the subject would suggest. And with Suha as the voice of educated reason by an outsider, the script has already started to rep various shades of opinion. She’s for a peaceful settlement of the Palestinian problem, arguing they’ll always be outclassed by Israeli military might.
At pic’s midway point, as the two men slip through the wire into Israeli-occupied territory, things start to go wrong. Said goes temporarily AWOL, and the guerrillas’ leader, Abu-Karem (Ashraf Barhoum), threatens to abort the mission; little turns out as originally planned.
Second half of the film, with all its criss-crossing of the border fence, and signs of wavering first by Said and then (more unbelievably) by Khaled, is almost too busy for any real tension to develop. And apart from the opening scene with Suha crossing a checkpoint, there’s almost zero sense of working undercover, or of being found out at any minute. In short, pic’s early, contained style fails to develop into anything more gripping.
Still, performances are fine, with Nashef especially and Suliman more fitfully bringing their characters alive, and rising star Azabal (so good in “Viva Algeria”) doing her best with a schematic role. Abbass is also quietly impressive as Said’s mom, who may or may not have guessed her son’s fate.
Tech package is very good, with no signs of the difficult shoot on mostly real locations (with additional shooting in Nazareth when things got too hot on the West Bank). Music would have been an assist in building more tension and emotional involvement.