Director Hany Abu-Assad puts a human face on the unwieldy subject of Israeli-Palestinian violence with "Paradise Now," the intimate story of two lifelong best friends living in the West Bank city of Nablus who are sent to perform a suicide bombing in Tel Aviv.
Abu-Assad, a Palestinian living in the Netherlands who co-wrote the script with Bero Beyer, doesn't judge his characters and doesn't validate their activities, either. In a stripped-down way, refreshingly free of melodrama, he simply shows us: This is who they are, and why they do what they do. (It's a marvel of perseverance and creativity that Abu-Assad and his crew were able to do what they did. Suspicious Israelis and Palestinians, missile attacks and land mines were prevalent throughout the shoot, and the location manager was kidnapped but later released with the help of Yasser Arafat.)
Said (Kais Nashef) and Khaled (Ali Suliman) could be youths of any nationality, their hopeless slackerdom is so familiar. Not exactly conscientious about their work as auto mechanics, they're far more interested in spending their afternoons smoking a hookah, drinking tea, listening to music and talking about women.
Then Jamal (Amer Hlehel), an older member of an unnamed Palestinian faction, informs Said that he and Khaled have been chosen for an assignment the next day.
"Are you happy?" Jamal asks.
"Yes, very, thank God," Said responds matter-of-factly. He and his childhood friend simply view this as their fate, which is presumably what provides Said with the courage to lie coolly to his mother (Hiam Abbass) when he gives her a fake reason for why he plans to cross the border into Israel the next day.
Their mission gives them purpose, but at varying times in their final hours together, it also gives them understandable pause.
Khaled, rifle in hand pointed skyward, reads his lengthy martyr speech in confident, measured tones in front of a video camera until the photographer realizes the camera isn't working and makes him do it all over again. It's a much-needed moment of dark humor, as is the sight of other faction members munching on pitas in the background. They've heard it all before they'll hear it all again.
After undergoing the necessary physical transformation a shave, a haircut and the attachment of explosives to their bodies, which Abu-Assad juxtaposes with the hypnotic rhythms of prayer Said and Khaled are ready. Dressed in conservative, dark suits and armed with the alibi that they're on their way to a wedding, they look like totally different people and as the minutes tick away, they start to feel like different people, too.
The quieter Said begins having doubts, having spent the early morning hours discussing the ongoing violence with the smart, beautiful Suha (Lubna Azabal), with whom he shared a mutual attraction.
When their plan goes awry and they become separated, it's up to the far more gung-ho Khaled to defend his friend and track him down before the organizers perceive him as a traitor.
This is where the film sputters a bit when it should be gaining momentum. Said and Khaled run around Nablus searching for each other, knocking on doors, visiting old haunts but just missing each other. It gets a little repetitive.
The ending is a bit abrupt but don't worry, we won't tell you what happened, partly because it's not entirely clear. Abu-Assad had enough faith in us to determine for ourselves what we think occurred in those final moments, and enough confidence in himself as a filmmaker.
"Paradise Now" is rated PG-13 for mature thematic material and brief strong language. Running time: 90 minutes.