Warner Independent Pictures, 2005

Paradise Now is an aesthetically polished and humanly and politically on-target passion play about two Palestinian friends who are meticulously prepared to carry out a suicide bombing in Israel. Winner of multiple awards, it was co-written by Hany Abu-Assad, a Palestinian living in Europe, and Bero Beyer, the Dutch producer. Directed by Abu-Assad, it humanizes and dignifies the plight of the Palestinian people, never sentimentalizing its subject even as it consumes the screen with feeling.

Abu-Assad researched the subject by studying the interrogation transcripts of suicide bombers who had failed and by speaking to people who personally knew bombers who had died. He found that “none of the stories were the same.” In the film, while the phenomenon of suicide bombers is made fully understandable in terms of the humiliation and utter hopelessness of Palestinians, the two protagonists are quite differently motivated.

Magnetically portrayed by Kais Nashef, the complex Said is the very embodiment of a gravely wounded and desperate people grappling with conflicting impulses. The jauntier Khaled, his hidden intensity richly revealed by the actor Ali Suliman, seeks glory and instantaneous heavenly reward. The view of Palestinians who believe the bombings change nothing is voiced by Suha (played by Lubna Azabel), a young woman whose father runs a human rights organization and who was raised abroad.

After the suicide plans go awry, pivotal scenes of flight and pursuit, culminating in heart-stopping struggles in a speeding car and a midnight graveyard, capture the passions raging in the collective Palestinian soul. These high-pressure events forever alter the young characters’ lives.

While the movie touches on everyday activities like romance and dinner gatherings, we also learn that an Israeli work permit is a bitterly desired prize and that a typical young adult living in Nablus has never been outside of this West Bank refugee camp city.

There are wonderfully humorous scenes as well, like the young men arguing with their auto repair shop boss over what constitutes a straightened fender, or the café patron who can’t understand how Sweden can have the world’s highest suicide rate when its citizens actually stop for traffic lights.

The direction, editing and camerawork dovetail harmoniously to powerful effect. Close-ups are artfully employed to emphasize wordless personal turmoil, scenes of struggle are choreographed with an eye to maximum intensity, and the pace of the film perfectly mirrors the physical and emotional rhythm of events.

Throughout, we witness the impoverished condition of Nablus, with faceless Israeli soldiers brandishing machine guns at checkpoints. Only toward the end do we see a quick series of shots of Tel Aviv. Its glittering, skyscrapered Westernness comes as a shocking contrast, which puts the lie to the myth of Israeli victimhood and begs the question of justice.

The 2005 Palestinian/Dutch/German/French release, a New York Film Festival selection, opens Friday, Oct. 28,
at the Lincoln Plaza and Landmark Sunshine theaters.