CAIRO: The joy of the Cairo film festival, on the cusp of its 30th anniversary and still an all-round model of mediocrity, is that it invariably houses the rare gem. The enervating and specious opening ceremony saw Omar El Sherif, still slick as an unrepentant lothario, accepting verbal adoration from host Safa’a Abu El So’oud before proceeding to hand out awards to industry luminaries while repeatedly cutting off the announcer that presented their resumes. When the glitterati cleared the room we were treated to Dutch-Palestinian filmmaker Hany Abu-Assad’s latest, the restrained, subtle, and alarmingly potent Paradise Now.
Said and his childhood buddy Khaled are introduced as late-20-something mechanics. They’re flippant and their work ethic leaves much to be desired, but they win you over instantly, and not just for their careless wit. Some undercurrent is palpable; there’s something much larger at stake here, seething on the periphery. Soon enough, they receive their summons to execute an operation as suicide bombers, and the film, at once gritty and serene, follows their journey.
Early in the film we see them sitting on a hillside in their hometown of Nablus, which they renounce as oppressive every chance they get. They smoke an argeila (water-pipe) and take in the skyline, a tape recorder by their side.
This is the extent of their leisure, a hopeless but necessary distraction from ennui. In an extremely tight shot, Said extracts a match from its box and lights it perfectly with the stroke of a single dexterous hand. The character’s condensed in the action: He’s had too much time for aimless practice, his will alert and restless.
The slow and deliberate pace plays on silence and nuance, and entire lengthy exchanges are stripped of dialogue and conducted using only clean, laconic expressions on the part of the actors. A surprising plot point, which would have propelled the action early in the film in a more conventional structure, occurs here at the film’s midpoint; the set-up and exposition are as important as the confrontations, and no scene lacks value.
Confident in its pensive tone, the shifts in rhythm and mode are gripping and satisfying. Suha, Said’s French-born new acquaintance and ideological counterpoint, is puckish and enamored, and their blossoming relationship foreshadows the test Said’s convictions will face. The videotaping of Khaled’s militant farewell speech, machinegun in hand, delivers its heart-rending horror, then abruptly turns into a laughout- loud skit when it’s discovered that the camcorder refuses to work, a petty grievance that somehow seems painfully familiar. The recurring comic motif, banter about a superior water filter, eventually takes on a sinister depth.
The talented supporting cast is well orchestrated, and the acting excellent.
Abu Karim’s militia leader intertwines breezy magnanimity with the narrowmindedness that comes with a position where no chances can be taken.
Jamal, Said’s close friend and militia go-between, derives sympathy because of his efforts as a teacher, and it permeates his callousness as he strengthens Said’s will with cold reasoning. He’s past the point of second-guessing their beliefs, enacting his duties stone-faced and expediently.
Said’s mother, Bab El Shams’ grave and earnest Hiam Abbas, is perpetually kept in the dark but still registers every sentiment her son endures.
The handling of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is as thorough, and consequently objective, as has ever been seen on film.
The arguments are always intelligent, brisk and emotionally grounded in the characters’ convictions and their immediate need to communicate their position. The visual presence of Tel Aviv, which arrives in the second half of the film with its skyscrapers and sunny beaches as a jarring contrast to the previously dominant provincial topography, is used as its own defense. Its might is the challenge of a battle that may have already been won.
Though it will no doubt be manipulated into the role, this picture is far from a polemic about suicide bombing, and certainly not exculpation. Said’s need is urgent, compounded and, in the final analysis, credible.The livelihood of his angered soul hangs on whether he can move towards the only brand of hope that makes sense given his particular circumstance. The strong finale, it can hardly be called a resolution given the perpetuity of the conflict, is downbeat but given how well these characters are defined, couldn’t possibly have turned out any other way.
Any attempt to trap a film of this caliber into phrases will always be an indecent exercise in reductionism. Make sure you see this modern masterpiece for yourself.