Paradise Now ★★★½

This review may contain spoilers. I can handle the truth.

This review may contain spoilers.

In screenwriting, the term “Want vs. Need” is defined as being the main summation of character development for the protagonist in the story. The protagonist begins with a “want:” a desire that is beyond their reach and can only be achieved by embarking on an undescriptive quest. Near the end of the film, the protagonist's motivations and “wants” start to shift in direction. And soon they desire a “need” for something else that defines their moment of growth and change as a person. However, a character or characters can’t simply go from one place to another at their own pace without plot devices and tensions assisting them as motivation. Otherwise what significant character development cannot be identified and consumed by the audience. To quote American film critic and theorist, Lindsay Ellis, in her video essay How Three-Act Screenplays Work (and why it matters), “But structure and tension also does not exist independent from character, far from it. You need character motivation in order for narrative to have tension and you need to have plot stuff in order to have character motivation.” So when it comes to Hany Abu-Assad’s Paradise Now, where the audience enters the narrative at the beginning of the film, and the challenges that the protagonists face ultimately define their evolution as characters.

Set in the city of Nablus, childhood friends Said (Kais Nashif) and Khaled (Ali Suliman) have been recruited by an ambiguous terrorist organization and are tasked to perform a surprise suicide attack in Tel Aviv; being strapped with explosives to their chests. At first, the start of the mission goes accordingly with Said and Khaled crossing over the Israeli border, but soon after, they flee from the scene after a couple of soldiers notice them and commence firing. Though Khaled returns to the group, Said loses his way and has to make it back to his city while unfortunately carrying the armed explosives and trying not to accidentally kill himself or others. After much searching, Khaled inevitably finds Said but he unwilling to hand over the explosives strapped to his chest. The movie ends with Said and Khaled carrying out the mission the following day, while Khaled develops second thoughts about the task, Said, however, proceeds with the plan anyway. The film’s final shot is of Said patiently sitting on a crowded bus heading for Tel Aviv, which is then interspersed with a cut to white - implying that he has successfully carried out the assignment.

Halfway through the film, after Said and Khaled accept to carry out the suicide attack, we get a wide shot of the entire organization sitting down at a table sharing a meal together. The shot itself is meant to be a direct reference to Leonardo Da Vinci’s painting The Last Supper, which depicts Jesus Christ relaying information to his 12 Apostles that one of them would inevitably betray him. The shot in the film is designed to be a bizzaro inversion of The Last Supper, with Said being positioned where Jesus sat in the painting, taking the roll of the one who will be sacrificed , and Khaled is positioned in the place of Saint John, who will accept the roll of writing new Testaments - or in his case, learning the real values of human life. In the structure of the film’s narrative, this is the second sequence, or “Lock-In” for the characters: it is a point where the protagonists have their motivations set and are ready to begin their quest. In the first sequence of the film, Said and Khaled are established as being incompetent and immature individuals. Khaled gets fired from his job as a car mechanic, Said intentionally smudges the tea leaves in his drink so as his mother can’t read his future, and both of them behave very rudely to a kid who got the two a pair of drinks and is only rewarded with a single coin. By the time the two are recruited into the organization and are forced to carry out an act of terrorism, the ring leader Jamal (Amer Hlehel) tells them before the mission, “If you’re not afraid of death, you have control of your life.” Said, at this moment, is hesitant and anxious about this operation, Khaled however, remains careless as to what Said thinks. When Said becomes lost and has to find his way back to HQ, there’s a point where he declines stepping onto a crowded bus because a woman and a child are present. This scene furthers his character arc, he sees life in the crowded areas he is told to destroy. There’s another moment of him recognizing this when he gazes intently out the window of a taxi and sees how full of life these places are. Khaled meanwhile, is less concerned with his environment and is more focused on finding Said and finishing the mission. He even tries to justify his irrational beliefs with Said’s lady friend Suha (Lubna Azabal), arguing, “I’d rather have paradise in my head than live in this hell.”

By this moment, Said has already undergone his own internal conflict, that being reminiscing on what his father had done in life. He reveals to Suha that his father was a Palestinian collaborator for the Israelis, and was eventually killed by the Israelis for unknown reasons. Khaled eventually finds Said and attempts to restrain and remove the explosives attached to him. But Said, despite the entire journey of seeing the city, still wishes to carry out the mission. At this point he has already become mentally and morally distant from any of his friends. The following day Khaled suddenly starts going through similar circumstances that Said went through the other day, given that he has spent so much time and energy looking for him. He too stares out the window of a car seeing crowds of people, and even becomes emotionally honest to his Said, hoping to cancel the mission all together, while Said has become just as careless and expressionless as Khaled at the beginning of Act II. Khaled had already discovered his “paradise,” and that was simply being with Said. Discovering this unexpected vulnerability from Khaled, Said perceives that Khaled has become a liability to the mission, and develops no qualms about tricking and forcefully shoving his childhood friend into a car to leave him. And as a final callback to the previous scene, Said gets onto a crowded bus filled with Israeli civilians, as he makes no eye contact with anyone surrounding him.

With narrative structure you can’t tell the story of the characters without a basis of how the they start out as, and hurl them into scenes that create contrast from where they were at the beginning of the story. Otherwise there would be no struggle and the audience watching would receive no satisfaction, and therefore take away nothing from the overall experience. With conflict you create a distinction between a character that starts as being a smug wannabe, and ends as being a humble and morally insightful individual.