Dir. HanyAbu-Assad. Pal-Neth-Ger-Fr. 2005. 90mins.

Putting a humanface on suicide bombers without lionising them is a tough assignment, and HanyAbu-Assad almost pulls it off with his feature Paradise Now, despite theminefield of unresolved issues he has to negotiate.

His story about twoPalestinian childhood friends who pledge their lives to the cause, and whathappens to them on their way to blow themselves up in Tel Aviv, should, throughits subject matter, generate much interest.

At the same time it willalso raise many painful questions beyond the Middle East about the rights andwrongs of terrorism.

Shot last spring onlocation in Nablus, Nazareth and Tel Aviv following a long gestation, ParadiseNow was originally financed exclusively by European sources, despite theparticipation throughout of a Tel Aviv production house.

Only on the eve ofits Berlin competition screening did the Israeli Film Fund officially announceit would recognise the picture as Israeli, and award it the same distributionincentives offered to other home-produced features should it be picked up forthe local market.

A hot market itemeven before its premiere in Berlin, its theme and origins should see it travelvery well and be reflected in international sales.

Khaled (Ali Suliman)and Said (Kais Nashef), who grew up together in Nablus and work side by sidefor a pittance at a garage, have been recruited as suicide bombers, bidingtheir time until they are called upon.

After a briefintroduction during which Khaled is fired for his impertinence towards acustomer, the plot focuses on the pair's last day together once they have beentold that the moment has come.

The middle men whowill send them on their mission sleep that night in Khaled and Said'srespective homes under the guise of guests. The next morning the two are putthrough a ritual which includes a video-recorded speech to be broadcast aftertheir deaths and a Last Supper of sorts.

They are then toldtheir mission and taken to the border with Israel - but the arrival of amilitary patrol forces them to abandon their appointment with the pick-up carand instead backtrack.

The pair becomeseparated and Khaled first returns to the middle men, then goes looking forSaid, who has headed off with Suha (Azabal), a girl of higher social statuswith who he has a relationship of sorts.

As the threecriss-cross town so various elements from their past are introduced, sometimestoo arbitrarily. Fierce arguments that erupt between each of the would-bebombers and Suha, who it transpires is a peace activist, cause the pair tore-consider their decision.

Shot on widescreen35mm to make it look significantly different from news footage (a medium mostfeatures on this subject seem to favour), Assad displays considerableself-confidence throughout with a fluid, economic narrative style that is verymuch his own.

Alternating betweenbitter irony and despair, he carefully avoids making either one of the two maincharacters into heroes and displays little sympathy for those who send them totheir death or for their arguments.

Nashef and Sulimanare both effective as the two friends who have agreed to sacrifice their lives,only to have second thoughts. while Azabal reconfirms her distinctive screenpresence with an impetuous performance.

Assad also drawscompassionate portraits from some of the characters in the background, and amoving, almost silent performance from Hiam Abbass as Said's mother comeclosest to indicating where the director's sympathies lie.

The film adopts thetype of stance that is unlikely to please anyone entirely who has an opinion onthe Middle East conflict and while issues like the recruitment of martyrs andcollaborators and the morality of killing soldiers against that of killingcivilians are all raised they are never explored in depth.

Abu-Assad alsorefuses to commit himself to any clear viewpoint. Palestinians will baulk athis outright condemnation of violence, as evidenced by Suha in one scene; norwill they applaud the traces of ridicule sneaked into the ceremonial recordingof the Martyrs' Last Speech. At the same time they may applaud Said's eloquentclaim that death is better than life without dignity.

For their part,Israelis may squirm uncomfortably at mention that one of their own has helpedthe enemy, despite the fact that such cases have been documented. Similarlythey will also protest against Paradise Now's definition of 'victim'.

Prod cos: Augustus Films, Lama Films, Razor Film, Lumen Film,ARTE France Cinema, Hazazah Films
Int'l sales:
Celluloid Dreams
Bero Beyer with HengamehPanahi, Amir Harel, Gerhard Meixner, Roman Paul Scr: Hany Abu-Assad, Bero Beyer
Andre Heberle
Sander Vos
Prod des:
Olivier Meidinger
Main cast:
Kais Nashef, AliSuliman, Luban Azabal, Amer Hlehel, Hiam Abbass, Ashraf Barhoum