Paradise Now (15)

Heaven can't wait
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Many no doubt will be left speechless by Paradise Now, in which Palestinian film-maker Hany Abu-Assad evokes the experience of suicide bombers in the hours leading up to a mission. The subject has such a taint of out-and-out taboo that you have to admire Abu-Assad's nerve, quite apart from his serious intent.

For many, the very idea of showing suicide bombers as complex, conflicted human beings is equal to glorifying them - as witness the protests, over the film's recent Oscar nomination, from Israeli families affected by suicide bombings.

Paradise Now makes especially uncomfortable viewing weeks after the documentary Diameter of the Bomb, about the aftermath of a bombing in Jerusalem, which contained some of the most chilling moments I've encountered in film: a matter-of-fact account of a woman's internal injuries, a brief shot (so nightmarish you can hardly credit what you're seeing) of a bomber's face ripped off by the blast and lying in the street like a rubber mask.

Such horrific effects of bombing are not mentioned in Paradise Now. Yet that's not as problematic an omission as it seems, for the film's two protagonists do not see their mission in concrete terms. Whether or not they visualise their likely effect on living victims, when it comes to their own certain demise, they see it in abstract, elevated terms: as heroism, martyrdom, even a kind of pop-star status ("I want our posters to hang in the town centre," enthuses one). Among the film's arguments is that such people's recourse to terrorism has political causes - but that the everyday conditions in which they live, and the rhetoric they have absorbed, may have blinded them to the real nature of their actions.

When we first meet Saïd (Kais Nashef) and Khaled (Ali Suliman), they're boys next door: slackerish garage workers in the West Bank city of Nablus. They're first seen having a ridiculous, mundane spat with a man about a damaged bumper, then perching on a hillside to chat over tea and a waterpipe. But soon Saïd is approached by a beaming man, Jamal (Amer Hlelel), who tells him his moment has come: Saïd and Khaled have been chosen to carry out a bombing in Tel Aviv. "Are you happy?" Jamal asks. "Yes, very," Saïd replies; he doesn't look it.

At first we can't believe that this amiable, secular-seeming duo could possibly be murderous fanatics: they can't entirely credit it themselves. The film vividly covers the ritual designed to convince them and the world, to turn them into images of walking death: with their hair cut, beards shaved and bodies washed, they are kitted out in black suits and ties, giving them the uncomfortable look of undercover cops at a Reservoir Dogs convention (in fact, one man innocently asks Saïd why he looks like a settler).

Then comes the PR, as the two men are videoed brandishing guns and advertising their imminent martyrdom. This sequence has a bleak satirical ring: Khaled, the more gung-ho and unquestioning of the two, makes an impassioned declaration, only to be told that the camcorder hasn't worked. He tries another take, while Jamal's staff stand around coolly munching pittas, then breaks off to leave his mother a message about buying water filters. Later we learn that such videos are available for sale and rental in local shops. Like managers of fly-by-night pop stars, the commanders routinely send the men to their deaths knowing there are always more eager expendables around the corner.

Then plans go awry and a confused Saïd is left hopping - with farcical ease - back and forth across the border fence. He's stranded under the sun, in a suit that not only makes him ludicrously conspicuous but is also clearly uncomfortable (we're aware of the heavy fabric, the oversized cuffs). His suspension between life and death, innocence and slaughter, gives the film a tension that smacks not just of Hitchcock but of Conrad's The Secret Agent.

The script, by Abu-Assad and his Dutch producer Bero Beyer, makes the two men's reasons for militancy perfectly clear: the personal wound Saïd hopes to salve is the death of his father, executed as a collaborator with Israel. A reasoning voice comes from Suha (Lubna Azabal), a young woman newly arrived from abroad, who seems on the verge of romance with Saïd: she pleads for "a moral war" and tells him, "There is no paradise. It exists only in your head." Come the end of the film, Abu-Assad has given us a glimpse of the hitherto unimaginable: exactly what might exist in a suicide bomber's head.

By the time we see the final close-up of one of the two men, unblinking and doomed, we perhaps understand more than we'd like to. The times being what they are, I'm afraid that this provocative, troubling film is essential viewing.