I recently reviewed director Hany Abu-Assad’s latest film, Omar for Roger Ebert. Omar was about a young Palestinian guy, who had a secret girlfriend, and a job, but also was drawn into the cycle of violence of the larger conflict, because what else are you gonna do with your life, when you’re 19, male, and Palestinian? It was a fine film. Abu-Assad’s 2005 film Paradise Now was the first to really reach our shores, and play in our art houses. It came to New York and I saw it while it ran here. I re-watched it recently to prep for Omar. It is an even stronger film than Omar, and I was trying to figure out why I felt that way. Paradise Now is both more practical and more abstract than Omar, which is probably an accurate reflection of what life might be like to the Palestinians who devote their lives to the cause. There can be no real personal life. There are no goals. You are not going anywhere. The abstraction of Paradise Now is what makes it so chilling. You can guess at the main topic of the film from the title alone. And yet in the film, we are introduced to two guys, Khaled (Ali Suliman) and Said (Kais Nashef) who seem like nice guys, they work at an auto shop in Nablus, they smoke a water pipe together and look out over the city, they tease each other about girls, one in particular. Her name is Suha (Lubna Azabal), and while she is Palestinian, she was born in France and grew up in Morocco. She has been to the outside world, she discusses things like film genres (Said has no idea what she is talking about, he has only been to a movie theatre once, maybe 10 years ago), she has seen the life outside of Nablus. She looks around her in Nablus and sees craziness. On the other hand, her father was a famous Palestinian leader, with a very high status in their highly-charged paranoid and political community. She is revered, despite the fact that she is so Westernized.
But on that abstract level, the guys have signed up to be martyrs, it will be a great honor to strap a bomb onto their person, and blow themselves up, taking a bunch of Israelis with them. It’s not that you don’t “care” about the characters. You do. You see them with their families, being kind to their mothers, wrestling with younger brothers. “Caring” about the characters, though, is just a byproduct of good acting, and human storytelling. When poured through the filter of a suicide bombing mission, it all starts to look very very different. In Omar, the three young guys shoot an Israeli soldier, and it seems that they do it on their own steam, wanting to align themselves to the cause. They are independent, not hooked up with one of the powerful groups like Hamas. In Paradise Now, there is a huge many-tentacled organization that runs the show, and the entire process, ritualistic in nature, is broken down for us. The boys are chosen. The mission will go down in two days. They cannot let on to anyone what it is they will be doing. They are given specific instructions. On their last night on earth, they are treated to a big meal by the underground organization, and then are washed and shaved of all body hair. The mood is silent and reverent. Unquestioning. Many have gone before them, many will come after. They then make videos, holding guns. It’s the next step in the suicide mission, they have it down to a science, the camera guy, the written speeches, the backdrop, the flags. We have all seen such videos by now. But in Paradise Now, Khaled interrupts his haltingly-read canned speech about dying for the glory of Allah, to say into the camera, “Mom, if you’re watching this, I noticed that the shop on such-and-such a street has water filters on sale. Just so you know.”
It’s a breathtaking moment.
Things do not go as planned with the mission. Hany Abu-Assad films it with certainty, urgency: as confusing as much of it is (the checkpoints, the two sides, the similar scenery), we never lose our place in space or time. And we also have conflicting responses to it. When things started to go south, I got frightened. “Wait, no, you can’t get separated!” I thought. But then I thought, “What the hell are you thinking? Getting separated will be the best thing possible for these guys.” It implicated me, in other words. I did not want the mission to succeed. I did not want them to kill innocent people and I had spent enough time with both of them that I liked them both and didn’t want them to die. They were so matter-of-fact about death. They had no regrets about it, Suha is the only outside eye to look around say, “This situation is crazy, and nothing is going to change. You are giving them a REASON to retaliate.” But she’s just one voice. And Paradise Now takes place in such a bell jar that by the time she voices her objections, it’s already way too late. Decades too late. Neither of these guys have any feelings whatsoever about going to their deaths, except for being honored.
All of the operatives around them, the guy who sets up the mission, the information guy, the one who plans it out … they all seem lifted straight from the streets, bringing to their roles a sense of reality, a well-lived atmosphere of siege and paranoia. None of what is going on here feels like acting at all. And yet the film does not feel rough, improvised, or haphazard. It is clean, clear, and devastating.
Even more powerful than I remembered.
I missed it on its run in New York. I felt bad about it at the time, especially since so many people I respected were raving about it, and it eventually made it onto many people’s Best of 2012 Lists. I finally saw it yesterday. It’s a phenomenal film. I hesitate to say too much about it. I am glad I didn’t read much about it before I saw it. Within the first two or three frames, I almost physically relaxed. It was beautiful, yes, but in a way that is quite unique. You aren’t sure what you are looking at, what you are experiencing. It’s clearly not a documentary, and yet it feels like it is, often. And then there are other times when it is obviously NOT a documentary, but those two energies meld and blend and intersect until you don’t notice, care, give a crap … It is an experience. It introduces you to two characters, a museum guard, and a tourist, and it sits back and lets us watch them converse. Or not converse. Just sit. They sightsee. They walk around the museum. They talk about paintings or sculpture. They have a beer. They get to know each other.
Mary Margaret O’Hara plays Anna, a woman from Montreal who goes to Vienna because her cousin who lives there is in a coma. The hospital found Anna’s address in her cousin’s wallet, and contacted her. Anna is a bartender. She takes photographs in her spare time. She doesn’t have a lot of money and has to borrow money to get to Vienna. She visits the glorious Kunsthistorisches Art Museum in Vienna, and asks a security guard (Bobby Sommer) how to take public transportation to such-and-such hospital. He is helpful. A tentative friendship is born, and he tells her that while she is in Vienna, if she needs help, or if she needs someone to talk to the doctors on her cousin’s behalf (she speaks no German), then she “knows where to find him”, he is at the museum from Tuesday to Friday.
But the story is not the story here. It is HOW it is told that is so unique, so compelling, so heart-stopping. The film is about these two people, but it is really about the importance of seeing.
I am sorry I didn’t see it on the big screen. The images are so grand, so beautiful, the gigantic Breughels and Rembrandts and all of the other amazing pieces of art in the museum, not to mention the museum itself – its structure, its colored walls, its doorways, its echoing staircases – they FILL the screen. It made me want to go to the Metropolitan Museum for the afternoon, that’s for sure.
Directed by Jem Cohen Museum Hours has a great and un-nameable power. I love a film with the confidence to be itself. I’ve spoken about it before. Museum Hours is ITSELF.
I’ve carried it with me now for 24 hours, and counting.