"What happens afterwards?" asks one of the two Palestinian men who have enough explosives strapped to them to blow both themselves and dozens of Israelis to kingdom come. "Two angels will pick you up," their handler replies, as if arranging a taxi to drop the soon-to-be martyrs off at the Gates of Heaven. Gently probing the mysteries of why someone would want to part this world in such a fashion, Hany Abu-Assad's Paradise Now offers a rare look at the life and death of a suicide bomber. Here in the United States, we think we know what suicide bombers look like ' poverty-stricken religious zealots who can barely stop praying long enough the pull the cord. But it turns out ' wouldn't you know it? ' they look a lot like you and me.
Meet Said (Kais Nashef) and Khaled (Ali Suliman), friends since childhood and now fellow employees of a car-repair shop on the outskirts of Nablus, a town in the occupied West Bank. As demonstrated to us when a customer rudely complains about a front fender being crooked, Khaled's the hotheaded one, Said the one who'll always try to smooth things over. But these two will surprise us again and again as we get to know them better, not that we ever know them as much as we'd like. It therefore comes as a surprise when we (and they) learn that they've been selected for a "martyrdom operation." We thought they were slacker dudes, puffing on a hookah while the Palestinian-Israeli conflict carries on without them. Instead, they're about to become heroes or terrorists, depending on your perspective.
But first they must undergo their final preparations ' a shave and a haircut, a ritual anointing and a last supper that Abu-Assad stages to resemble that other last supper. Oh, and the making of videos that will serve as their farewells to this world and their calling cards to the next. Khaled goes first, reading from a prepared script while hoisting a Kalishnikov he may not even know how to fire. His performance is convincing enough, but it turns out the camera wasn't working. He'll have to summon up the proper motivation all over again, and pray that a flubbed line doesn't wind up on some bloopers reel. Without going for laughs, the movie manages to portray Said and Khaled's suicide mission with both reverence and irreverence. They're only human, which means they could be making a huge mistake.
Abu-Assad may have thought he was making a huge mistake during the filming of Paradise Now, which happened to coincide with the second intifada. Dodging bullets and missiles, the Palestinian director finally had to move the production from battle-torn Nablus to Nazareth after one of his crew members was briefly kidnapped. But the movie still has the queasy vibe of a war zone. Abu-Assad keeps things spare ' no music on the soundtrack, lots of static shots. And one of the movie's great strengths is its sense of daily life amid a years-long upheaval. When an explosion occurs somewhere nearby while people are walking to work, everybody pauses for a second, even flinching slightly, then resumes walking, oblivious to Said and Khaled's rendezvous with destiny.