Sympathy for the devil

Weighing in on films that focus on suicide bombers

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In response to the current crop of films that have taken suicide bombers as their focus, local right wing pundit Debbie Schlussel recently blustered: “No film should ever have a homicide bomber as its ‘protagonist.’ Period.”

Which prompts the question, why stop there?

Why not ask Anthony Hopkins to return his Oscar for Silence of the Lambs and Charlize Theron hers, for her rotten-toothed turn as serial killer Aileen Wuornos? Heck, shouldn’t we revoke Shakespeare’s literary license for celebrating such murderous thugs as Richard III and Macbeth?

While it may be politically expedient to paint suicidal terrorists simply as monsters, it’s a shallow view of the human condition. Like it or not, the spectrum of humanity runs from Adolf Hitler to Mother Teresa ... by way of all points between.

The real trick is whether a film like Hany Abu-Assad’s intriguing Paradise Now can convincingly address the inner lives of its murderous protagonists without generating sympathy for their awful actions. It’s a risky proposition, but luckily, Abu-Assad delivers a reasonably well-crafted melodrama first and confused political screed second.

Filmed in the West Bank in 2004, the movie follows the final 24 hours of Palestinian mechanic Said (Kais Nashef) and his friend Khaled (Ali Suliman) as they prepare themselves for “martyrdom.” Much of Paradise Now is constructed like a heist film, devoted to the characters’ psychological and strategic preparations. We watch as soft-spoken Said enjoys the company of his unsuspecting family one last time, struggles to dampen romantic longings for a beautiful pacifist and prepares to meet his destiny — all under the watchful eye of a terrorist chaperone.

With careful attention to detail and surprising moments of black humor — the best of which is Khaled’s thwarted attempt to make a heartfelt martyr video with an incompetent cameraman —Paradise Now attempts to understand the rationale of those who would murder innocents in the name of piety or politics. What emerges is a study of two men motivated less by religious passion and more by feelings of emasculation. Humiliated by the Israeli military’s ever-controlling presence and surrounded by anti-Israeli propaganda, it becomes easy to see how these young friends become ticking bombs of rage and frustration.

With explosives strapped beneath their well-tailored suits, Said and Khaled cross the Israeli border only to have their mission quickly fall apart. Driven back by gunfire, they separate, sending their terrorist organization into a paranoid tailspin. Khaled struggles to convince his superiors that his childhood friend has not betrayed them while Said grapples with a re-emerging sense of free will.

Unfortunately, here the film unravels in contrivances and murky political positioning. The predictable chase that follows never really deepens our understanding of the characters or, particularly in Said’s case, fully explores his awakening humanity.

Instead Abu-Assad tries to hedge his bets by giving Said a personal justification for his actions while condemning the ensuing violence. His desire to have things both ways ends up equivocating on the moral bankruptcy of suicide bombings.

Visually, the film is an arresting wash of sun-baked yellows and vibrant ruins. The director captures the otherworldly contradictions of Gaza’s desolate landscapes and teeming street life. Both Nashef and Suliman bring authenticity and charisma to their roles, rendering thoughtful and compassionate portraits of these conflicted and flawed men.

Paradise Now tries to address its highly volatile subject matter with sensitivity and grace but, ultimately, never rises above political posturing or effectively confronts the humanity of its characters. As a result, the film’s artistic failures only add fuel to the fires of self-righteous partisans.

 

In Arabic with English subtitles. Now showing at the Birmingham 8 (211 S. Old Woodward Ave., Birmingham; 248-644-3456), and opening in Ann Arbor on Nov. 18 at the Michigan Theater (603 E. Liberty St., Ann Arbor; 734-668-8463).

Jeff Meyers writes about film for MetroTimes. Send comments to letters@metrotimes.com.

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