Tapped to commit a suicide bombing in Tel Aviv, best friends Said (Kais Nashef) and Khaled (Ali Suliman) are taken aback. Approached separately, they spend their last nights with their families, unable to speak of their futures. This is the assignment they requested years ago, the assignment they dreamed of having, and on top of this honor, they’ve been directed to go together, as they had requested as well.
Still, at the start of the powerful Paradise Now, they’re also quiet, even stunned at the news. The paradise they’ve been imagining for so many years is now just hours away. Long alienated in occupied Nablus on the West Bank, Said and Khaled accept the assignment with a mixture of anticipation and anxiety. Accompanied home for dinner by his “angel,” or handler Jamal (Amer Hlehel), Said tells his mother (Hiam Abbass) he’s headed for a new job in the morning, having finally gotten a work permit. She’s happy for him, he lies to her all night.
Said has other questions roiling inside: he’s recently become interested in Suha (Lubna Azabal), daughter of a famous martyr for Palestine and customer at the auto repair shop where Said and Khaled both work. Born in a refugee camp and troubled by his own father’s conviction as a collaborator with the Israelis, Said is both impressed by Suha and intimidated by her.
Ironically, Suha’s legacy is the one Said covets and hopes to win for his own family, whom he believes is shamed by his father’s nefariousness (this even though, as his mother tries to explain, “Whatever your father did, he did it for us”). Suha, however, feels very differently. When, the night before his mission, Said drops by her house at four a.m. to “drop off” her car keys, she brings him inside for conversation. Here he reveals something about his trouble-making, proto-radical childhood, when he and his friends burned down a cinema in Nablus. “Why?” asks Suha, “What did the cinema do to you?” “Not the cinema,” he explains, “Israel.” Suha pushes him, asking him to name a favorite genre of movie; in response, he asks which is the most “boring, like life.”
Said’s efforts to imagine his death lead him to press Suha on her feelings about her father, to hear her attest to her pride and devotion. She sees martyrdom in another way, however, and so establishes the film’s anti-bomber “conscience,” saying that her father left his family feeling only tragedy and unhappiness. Said can’t believe this. It undercuts his very existence. “The occupation defines the resistance,” he insists, naming violence the only possible response.
But Suha’s protest, the alternative she embodies and the experience she represents, make Said think again about his decision. The next day, as he and Khaled prepare for their martyrdom, he keeps his mouth shut, but their separate tensions are visible — as they’re shaved and suited (the cover story is that they’re on their way to a wedding in Tel Aviv), and strapped with explosive belts. They also pose for their posters (which Khaled declares he wants to be displayed prominently in the town center, to showcase his to-be-vaunted martyrdom) and record their martyr videos (in town, there’s a brisk market for these as well as for collaborators’ videos, a conjunction that unnerves Said). Their recording session — posed with guns held aloft and reading from mission-exalting scripts — goes briefly awry when the operator has to repair the camera. This means that Khaled must go through his speech twice, leading him to a bit of banality that speaks to the life he’s leaving behind, shopping advice to his mother.
In this and other instances, Paradise Now underlines the absurd rituals of suicide missions, the ways that the perpetrators are induced into thinking that what they’re doing is special, necessary and will, in time, help to change things. Indeed, their inspiration, local cell leader Abu-Karem (Ashraf Barhoum), promises them care for their families and everlasting respect by their community. Feeling emasculated by the occupation and immobilized by their lack of future, the young men have nothing to lose. And this, it seems is more a motivation than any specific religious zealotry. Said and Khaled see no options. They’ve been indoctrinated since birth to see paradise in the future they can choose, if only they believe and allow themselves to be directed.
It’s these directors who provide, however briefly, the movie’s most perversely compelling images. Apparently dispassionate, they make all arrangements and watch over their bombers — closely in the hours before the deed — to ensure smooth execution. When, at the hour of crossing over the border, something goes wrong and Said and Khaled are split up, the handlers are left to worry about their capture, and so, their own exposure. Abu-Karem is particularly cold, insinuating that if Khaled does not locate his friend soon enough, that Said will need to be “handled” with the organization’s best interests in mind.
While the movie focuses its final hour on the pursuit of Said — by his friends and his handlers — it is, in the end, Jamal’s face that haunts you. While Said and Khaled speak frequently, discussing their choices, wondering about their rightness, Jamal remains quiet, only in place to help them complete their work — and their lives — as his work will continue, as he works through the apprehensions felt and questions raised by future bombers. Jamal, impassive, silent, relentless, helps to convince the bombers to continue. Without him, the system could not function.