A common criticism of Hollywood from the right side of the political spectrum is that it hasn’t made any movies that deal with the war on terror. That probably has less to do with political bias than it does with financial bottom line — the only two recent mainstream movies to touch on the theme of America versus terrorists were Stealth and Team America, and neither made big bucks. Foreign and indie films, however, have been dealing with Islamic terror for quite a while now, from the anthology 11’09″01 to the more recent The War Within. And now Warner Independent has stepped into the fray with the Palestinian film Paradise Now, which takes a definite anti-violence stance but ventures even deeper into controversy by daring to be a black comedy.
We’re not talking Dr. Strangelove here — director Hany Abu-Assad (Rana’s Wedding) is no Kubrick yet. But would Kubrick have had the cojones to make Strangelove at, say, the Berlin Wall? Abu-Assad’s shoot took place mostly in the West Bank city of Nablus, where men with guns would constantly admonish him to stop filming.
Saïd (Kais Nashif) and Khaled (Ali Suliman) seem like typical slacker mechanics when we first meet them, but in short order they are informed by their friend Jamal (Amer Hlehel) that they’ve been chosen for the next suicide mission against the Israelis. When the time comes to slip through the fence into Israeli territory, however, things don’t go as planned; the two are separated, and Saïd gets lost. Khaled pleads with the terrorists for a chance to find his friend so they can make things right. Meanwhile, Saïd’s would-be girlfriend, Suha (Lubna Azabal), is starting to figure out what’s going on.
Saïd and Khaled’s justifications for armed resistance are almost exactly the same as American arguments for fighting terror — negotiations have failed, the other side won’t stop killing even if we do, the enemy thinks we have no right to exist. The truth may not match the rhetoric, but the point is that the rhetoric seems to be universal. In a practical sense, it doesn’t matter that, in a hypothetical Palestinian state, stifling Islamic laws would hardly be conducive to personal freedom; the Israeli soldiers are the immediate oppressors.
The comedy surfaces in the absurdity of strapping a bomb to oneself to become a hero. Khaled complains about the painful removal of his bomb, only to be told that, of course, no one designed them to be taken off. Martyrs summon all their courage to record vehement final testimony on videotape — and then the camera jams. A video-store owner marks up the price of tapes depicting martyrs being shot, his most popular item.
Some won’t appreciate the mix of tones, but none of the humor cheapens the film’s final blow, nor is it designed to condone terrorism. The chorus demanding more movies about our current war likely wasn’t asking for this sort of thing, but you’ll probably appreciate it anyway.