By Meera Subramanian

In Palestine, the enemy is many things. The enemy takes your land and holds you captive. The enemy launches bombs that leave the whitened stones of the West Bank in a mass of rubble that merges with the dust of the land. The enemy walks along the beachside boardwalk unaware of your existence. But the enemy in a refugee camp is also tedium, and a life Said, the main character in Hany Abu-Assad’s new film, Paradise Now, can only describe as boring. Paradise Now takes us into the world of two Palestinian men, Said and Khaled, friends from childhood living in Nablus in the West Bank, who volunteer for a suicide-bombing mission in Tel Aviv. It is a Palestinian movie with Palestinian characters and a Palestinian viewpoint, but it is universal in expressing the feelings and desperation of those living under occupation and explores what can drive people to commit extreme and violent acts.

Reviews have overall been mostly positive for giving a human face to a subject matter that is easy to summarily condemn without thinking any more of it. Criticism has come from the blogs Transatlantic Intelligencer and David’s Medienkritik, focusing on the lack of the Israeli viewpoint. A piece by Tobias Ebbrecht is also highly critical of the film, focusing on the German origins of much of the film’s funding, and drawing an anti-Semitic comparison to the film Der Untergang (“The Ruin”) about Hitler’s last days.

Reviews in The L.A. Times, Salon.com, and HollywoodReporter.com, among others, noted correctly that the characters are decidedly undevout, but the film is filled with religious imagery, especially in the scene where the two men, unshaven and in a perpetual state of grunginess from their lives as auto mechanics, are transformed in preparation for the bombing. They are carefully shaved and washed like babies (or laid out on a slab, possibly more like corpses). They are lavishly fed in a scene directly from DaVinci’s Last Supper. They are dressed in white shrouds and prayed over, then their torsos wrapped tenderly with bombs, and their bodies with fine suits.

It is the ultimate transformation, from human to something beyond. Filmmaker Abu-Assad said, “They use religious ceremonies to validate their acts and give them courage,” but the situation in Palestine is not a religious jihad. It is politics that Abu-Assad portrays as leaving men like Said and Khaled with few other options. The characters are based on an amalgamation of people the director learned about through talking to suicide bombers who didn’t complete their missions and the families of bombers who did. The argument against bloodshed comes through the character Suha, Said’s romantic interest, who argues with the men that violence only begets more violence. Of her famous father’s death as a suicide bomber, she says simply that she would rather have him still here.

To ability to kill and the willingness to be killed are both transformative powers and religion can help justify both acts. So can an individual’s own personal experience, such as Said’s need to amend his father’s execution as a conspirator to the Israelis. But ultimately it is the transformation of an ordinary life into something bigger and more meaningful that lies behind these acts. “What happens next?” asks Khaled as they drive to their drop-off point. After a moment’s pause, he is told two angels will pick them up, yet no one in the car seems to believe this. It is as though the martyr’s glory in Paradise Now is a nearly insignificant balm used to coat the wounds of a political war, and keep a steady supply of bombers ready to make the next sacrifice.

Meera Subramanian is a writer living in New York City.