Cynics have long noted that religious fervor runs highest in disenfranchised populations, for a fairly straightforward reason: When your chances for happiness in this life are close to nil, the afterlife starts looking better all the time. And, when so many of us live in such unprecedented luxury, it's hard to understand the ultimate, drastic choices made by suicide bombers unless we can imagine the world they aspire to escape. Anyone willing to entertain such a point of view will be very well served by 2005's Oscar-nominated Paradise Now.
Said (Nashef) and Khaled (Suliman) are two average Palestinian guys who work as mechanics for a salvage yard-at least, for a while they do, but Khaled's rebelliousness and indifference to any normative work ethic promptly cost him his job. As the friends hang out overlooking their West Bank hometown of Nablus, smoking a nargilah and discussing their prospects, the landscape looks pretty bleak, both geographically and economically. They can't get work visas for Israeli-occupied areas with better jobs so, like most ghettoized young men, they wind up turning to an underworld community for reassurance and financing-whether through dealing drugs or, in this case, death.
We only find out about Said's and Khaled's extracurricular involvements when their friend Jamal (Amer Hlehel) shows up to inform them it's their lucky day: They've been chosen for a retaliatory suicide mission in Tel Aviv, to take place in less than 24 hours. In the meantime, Said has fallen for Suha (Lubna Azabal), who's beautiful, educated and very much from the other side of the tracks. The young Arab woman articulately and vehemently opposes the Palestinian resistance's violent tactics, all the more so because her father was a martyr. As our heroes make their own unsettling preparations for martyrdom-bathing, shaving, strapping on explosives and videotaping messages for their families while absurdly dressed in full fedayeen garb and toting Uzis (though they pose as Israelis in expensive dark suits for the actual operation)-it seems as though they really believe that, as their leader promises, "You are the ones who will change things." And the tension thusly generated-will they go through with it?-blisters the screen right up until the last frame.
None of this would work if it weren't for Abu-Assad's tight directorial control. With simple but structured shots (like an unaffected reference to Da Vinci, as the bombers-to-be partake of a ritual last supper), Abu-Assad pulls us in, while his script keeps us there. He's found ideal actors in Ali Suliman and Kais Nashef, especially the latter's haunting performance as Said; the two young men have an easy comedic chemistry between them that incongruously recalls Bill and Ted or Wayne and Garth, so we absolutely believe their ordinariness (which makes their destinies all the more shocking). The supporting cast, too, offer solid portrayals of daily life-in particular Hiam Abbass (currently in The Syrian Bride) as Said's mother, bringing a burnished depth to the screen with her silently eloquent face; it's clear she knows full well about her son's lethal plans but says nothing. "I'd rather he were alive than a hero," Suha says of her father to Said, who responds automatically, "The occupation defines the terms of the resistance." But when such dogma's been made as literal and personal as suicide, can anyone still swallow it whole?
, with its problematized dialectic, refuses to supply the answer.