Palestinian Apocalypse

Reviewed by Anselma Dell'Olio

Paradise Now
by Hany Abu-Assad
Warner Independent Pictures, 2005, 90 minutes

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he first thing that strikes one about the film Paradise Now, co-written by director Hany Abu-Assad and Dutch producer Bero Bey­er, is that the voice of non-violence is assigned to the cleverly conceived character of Suha, the daughter of a Palestinian patriot and martyr. In light of the generally reduced role of women in Muslim cultures, it is not insignificant that the auteur chose one to be his philosophical and po­litical mouthpiece. Suha, played by the skilled actress Lubna Azabal, is a warm, appealing, and very attractive human rights activist who has just returned to her home in Nablus from work abroad. At the film’s opening, we watch her arrival at a checkpoint, and the unflinching hostility with which both she and the Israeli soldier in charge stare at each other during the routine baggage inspection. The scene speaks volumes for the endur­ing rage and bottomless mistrust on both sides of the barricades. Yet there is something else at work here: Abu-Assad makes clear that his heroine is no patsy to the Israelis, yet he has cast in the brief, non-speaking role of the “enemy” soldier a handsome, even sensual actor most females wouldn’t mind meeting under different cir­cumstances.
This is not to say that Abu-Assadis determined to present a politically fair-minded film: Not at all. For start­ers, he does not address, even glanc­ingly, the internecine conflict, mal­feasance, and long-term corruption of the litigious groups that constitute the Palestinian leadership—the film world still awaits such a depiction from a Palestinian director. What is unusual, even extraordinary, for this genre, is that the film combines its willfully ahistorical account of the Israeli occupation with a penetrating, artful, and articulate critique of sui­cide bombers. Israel, in Abu-Assad’s view, is the all-powerful, invincible monolith that has monopolized the roles of both oppressor and victim, and that bears sole responsibility for the murderousness, injustice, and chaos that define Israeli-Palestin­ian relations. The opening scenes establish, through telling details, the effect of this situation on Palestinians: The claustrophobic, wrecked land­scapes of Palestinian life; the stuck-open window in a taxi that cannot be repaired because no parts are available; the perennially rubble- and garbage-strewn streets of the Palestin­ian cities; and the ever-present back­ground noise of sirens and explosions, all a continual reminder that life in the territories is cheap, nasty, and brutish.
It is clear that, on account of its de­piction of Israel and Israelis, Paradise Now will infuriate, in a rising crescen­do, those on the political Right with regard to the war on terrorism and related issues. Conversely, it is likely to be of great appeal the farther to the Left one is, especially for the pacifists. Yet to leave it at that would be a mis­take. Despite the film’s flaws—most notably the insistence on human­izing its suicide-bomber protago­nists—there is something here worth watching....

Anselma Dell’Olio is a writer and film critic who lives in Rome and New York.

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