Much like Joseph Castelo's recent feature The War Within, Paradise Now addresses the humanity and inner life of suicide bombers, considering their reasoning without overtly judging their actions. It's a risky topic, likely to prompt snap condemnation from people who haven't seen the movies—neither of which handles the subject in an entirely convincing manner. But while War Within takes a deeper, more personal look at its protagonist, Paradise Now is a more ambitious film that better contextualizes its central characters and their politics.
Paradise Now writer-director Hany Abu-Assad primarily deals with two young Palestinian men who are about to martyr themselves for the cause. Kais Nashef is the grim, quiet, fervent son of an executed Israeli collaborator; his desire to redeem his family name has driven him since childhood. His old friend Ali Suliman is talkier and more eager, and possibly less connected to the reality of his approaching death. Still, they're both initially committed to carrying out what seems likely to be a devastating strike in Tel Aviv. But Nashef's encounter with pacifist Lubna Azabal, whose arguments counteract the political line he's been fed by his anti-Israeli militia cell, is only the first thing to go wrong with the plan.
Much of the movie is devoted to the preparation for Nashef and Suliman's suicide run, from their bleakly funny attempts to videotape their last political and personal statements to the minutiae of dress and disguise that will let them pass as Israeli citizens. Abu-Assad took his telling details from interviews with failed bombers and with bombers' associates and families, and at times, his focus on these details makes Paradise Now feels like a heist film or a crime caper. It touches on other set genres as well from indie romance to comic farce, and the grim material often struggles against the format and the occasional dab of black humor. But at heart, it's still a simple, personal story about a conflicted young man surrounded by opinions and pressures, trying to decide what he really thinks and wants. In another country, the film's accessible format seems to imply, the same character might be trying to decide whether to ask the prom queen on a date, or go out with his loyal but mousy best friend. The fact that he's instead dealing with matters of life, death, and murder is as much a condemnation of the political situation he lives in and the people manipulating him as it is a judgment of his potentially fatal choices.