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Issue Date:  November 18, 2005

Two views of the Holy Land


The accidents of movie openings create a column that brings together two very different films from the Middle East -- one Israeli, the other Palestinian -- currently playing at the same New York theater. The first, Ushpizin (holy guests), is the pleasantest surprise of the year, winning best film awards in Israel and successfully combining both good-natured humor and genuine religious feeling. Its protagonists are a poor, childless Hasidic husband and wife, Moshe and Malli Bellanga, who live in the insular Jerusalem neighborhood of Mea Shearim. They are played by Shuli Rand and Michal Bat Sheva Rand, themselves an Orthodox married couple. The Rands convey a contagious affection for each other, are stouter than their Hollywood versions would have been and shout out their prayers and complaints with immense conviction.

Directed by Giddi Dar from a script by Shuli Rand, “Ushpizin” takes place during Succoth, harvest holy days that celebrate hospitality, a time when believers move into the rustic shelter of a prayer hut or sukkah. At the outset the Bellangas mingle petitions with deep moans because they can’t afford a sukkah -- they need a miracle. They respond with wild enthusiasm when they are given someone else’s hut by mistake, and after a $1,000 donation from a yeshiva (school) is put under their door, they believe their prayers have been answered. All they now lack are guests to share the festival with them and, lo and behold, Moshe’s old pal Eliyahu (Shaul Mizrahi) and the latter’s suspicious-looking sidekick Yossef (Ilan Ganani) suddenly knock on their door.

What Moshe doesn’t tell Malli is that his friendship with Eliyahu was from a time before he “got religion” and was sometimes a violent young man. What he doesn’t realize is that the surprise guests have just escaped from prison. The Bellangas gradually become wary of their visitors’ boorish manners but feel they may be failing some divine test; after all, Eliyahu’s biblical namesake often made visits in disguise. But finally, the guests go too far, cooking their meat outside, their boom box blasting away at the startled neighborhood.

Mr. Dar gives the proceedings a parable-like flavor. The Bellangas are lovable fools, joyously impractical and convincingly pious. Mr. Rand, an actor before embracing Hasidism, won an Israeli Film Academy Award for his portrayal of Moshe. When, deeply disturbed, Moshe goes to his rabbi, the latter wisely counsels him, “Don’t be angry.” Mr. Rand’s wife, Michal Bat-Sheva, had not acted before, but is totally convincing as a pious, excitable woman, far from submissive to husbandly dominance. Together, they constitute a fine advertisement for ultra-Orthodoxy and upbeat moviemaking.

In contrast, Paradise Now, directed by Hany Abu-Assad and made under dangerous conditions in Nablus and Nazareth, is a suspenseful examination of the lives of two friends who are members of a suicide bombing team in Israel. Said (Kais Nashef) and Khaled (Ali Suliman) work in an automobile repair shop, smoke a water pipe together, still live at home and can hardly imagine any future. Suddenly they are told they are to carry out a suicide mission the next day.

The director does not support their act, but in observing these likable but deeply confused young people, asks us to begin to understand it. The men feel deeply humiliated by constant reminders of Israeli power: Khaled’s father was badly injured by Israeli soldiers; Said’s father was killed as a “collaborator” when the boy was only 10. Believing he is spending his last evening at home, Said wants to speak to his mother, but watches silently as she chops vegetables. Later he sneaks out to visit Suha (Lubna Azabal), a young woman who has returned to Nablus after living for some years in Morocco. The two are clearly attracted to each other, but he soon leaves, unable to share his secret. Later she articulates her antiviolence convictions to both Said and Khaled, asking, “What happens to those left behind?” and advocates a gradualist position aimed at world opinion.

But “Paradise Now” has little time for theoretical debate. The next day the two friends are shaved and anointed, and cell leaders have even arranged to videotape their farewell statements. Mr. Abu-Assad does not hesitate to show the amateurishness of this staged presentation, with each man holding a machine gun and reading a script. When the camera falters, cell members immediately start to eat.

The most chilling sequence develops after Said and Khaled, impeccably attired in dark suits as if they are going to a wedding, cross the green line into Israel. Unfamiliar with the landscape, they soon become separated, and Khaled manages to get back to the cell leaders. The leaders panic, prepared to believe Said has betrayed the mission, but Khaled desperately searches all over Nablus for his friend. Meanwhile, Said, alone, is deeply confused, and the film leaves us uncertain till the end as to whether he will re-cross the border back to Palestine.

“Paradise Now” shows terrorists as human beings. It also sees the humor in these two friends wandering about in wedding suits, strapped with explosives. It is not a matter of sympathizing with their decisions, but when the camera looks deeply into Said’s eyes as he says, “I will not go back to life in a refugee camp,” we recognize the depth of his humiliation.

Joseph Cunneen is NCR’s regular movie reviewer. His e-mail address is

National Catholic Reporter, November 18, 2005

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