Cogent and considered, Paradise Now boldly ventures into high-risk territory: the mind of a suicide bomber. Nominated at the 2006 Oscars, this tale of two Palestinian friends recruited for a fatal assignment that goes awry is told with non-judgmental grace by director and co-writer Hany Abu-Assad. Charting the mission's run-up in vivid detail, he neither martyrs his characters nor paints them as monsters. The result is a tense, thoughtful drama that's as absorbing as it is relevant.
Khaled (Ali Suliman) and Said (Kais Nashef) are just two regular car mechanics, drinking tea and having a smoke on a sunny afternoon. But when they're called upon to sacrifice themselves in a revenge attack on Tel Aviv the next day, they easily comply. Yet there are doubts in Said's head thanks to Suha (Lubna Azabal), a late Palestinian fighter's daughter who only believes in peaceful protest. Nevertheless, shaved, suited and strapped with hidden explosives, the men set off to meet their destiny. Then they get separated...
For all its political baggage, this is a highly personal story, accessible and emotionally engaging. Perhaps there's some contrivance in the way the film's various viewpoints are so evenly laid out. Yet Abu-Assad manages the thorny task of highlighting his characters' humanity without excusing their actions. His assured handling even extends to the pitch-black comedy of some martyr-video cock-ups. But there's little relief to be had in the second half, as Abu-Assad ratchets up the tension to almost unwatchable levels, resolving the plot with a reversal that leaves a lasting chill.
In Arabic with English subtitles.