THE WAR WITHIN
starring Ayad Akhtar, Firdous Bamji, Nandana Sen, Sarita Choudhury
screenplay by Ayad Akhtar, Joseph Castelo, Tom Glynn
directed by Joseph Castelo
starring Kais Nashef, Ali Suliman, Lubna Azabal, Amer Hlehel
screenplay by Hany Abu-Assad, Bero Beyer, Pierre Hodgson
directed by Hany Abu-Assad
by Walter Chaw Two films, one by New Jersey filmmaker Joseph Castelo, the other by Palestinian lenser Hany Abu-Assad, begin to make inroads into what is perhaps the most inscrutable phenomenon of the so-called War on Terror: suicide bombing. They're important films, I think, mostly because suicide bombers, like the Japanese Kamikaze pilots of WWII, make it easier to generalize and dehumanize/demonize the enemy as faceless zealots. Every manned car-bomb, every explosives-strapped martyr, creates ideological schisms on either side--more so and deeper, I'd offer, than conventional missiles or rifle shells do, because here we're striking at the very heart of the way we perceive life and the afterlife: holiness and sin, valour and cowardice. If there's ever to be some sort of olive branch in this millennia-old conflict, it has to start with an agreement not only to recognize the humanity beneath the atrocities committed by both sides in the name of defending home and hearth, but also to admit that centuries-old texts about the supernatural are piss-poor signposts pointing the light of right reason.
It's the difference between The Last Temptation of Christ and The Passion of the Christ, the former suggesting that Christ's essential/vital humanity led Him to contemplate an ordinary life, the latter exploiting that humanity for the cause of relentless and vivid bloodletting. (Tellingly, only the former was condemned and picketed by the wacky Christian right.) No accident, then, that both Castelo's The War Within and Abu-Assad's Paradise Now present their martyrs a choice: what they perceive as their bloody destiny, or the love a beautiful woman, the embrace of loyal friends, and gainful employment in professions of repair and production. Start with The War Within's quiet, balding, unassuming Hassan (Ayad Akhtar), plucked by the omnipotent Americans from the streets of Paris for his childhood friendship with a man killed at a rally in Afghanistan. Three years have passed from the time Hassan was tortured in a limbo we might surmise is Guantanamo Bay when he sneaks into the United States inside a shipping container to meet with an embedded terror cell invested in blowing up Grand Central Station.
Hassan stays with another childhood buddy, Sayeed, who lives in the suburbs with his wife, sister Duri (Nandana Sen)--with whom Hassan appears to have some kind of romantic history--and little boy, who comes to idolize Hassan's devoutness. Duri tries to seduce Hassan but repels him instead with her "worldliness," and the whole of his friend's existence is shocking to the embittered pilgrim. We're left to gather that he has developed his rigidity under the cruel ministrations of America's own holy crusade to save freedom by abridging it, sometimes criminally so. It's a hard line to draw, though, isn't it? They're written in grey, the lengths we should go in extracting information from recalcitrant combatants and, more, identifying the bad guys in the first place. Would I condone torture if it were to lead to information that might save the lives of thousands? Of my family? Probably. It's a good thing I'm not the guy writing the rules, I guess, because my first reaction after 9/11 was to pave over the Middle East. It's only time and cooler heads that have reminded me of the requirements of civilization--that the argument that the victims of those suicide attacks didn't get due process is answered by "Yes, that's because they were killed by terrorists," and that Christ's beatitudes have very little to do with Old Testament fire and brimstone.
But The War Within, after a promising start, tramples on the very ambiguity it seeks to foster, painting the FBI as lunatic goons while unequivocally forgiving, instead of simply trying to understand, Hassan's murderous ablutions. I like that Castelo considers how benevolent religions (Islam, Christianity) can be perverted into blueprints for Armageddon--moreover, that he portrays his anti-hero as being tempted by an American existence of backyard barbecues, 9-5s, and beautiful women before he's thrown back into moral superiority by the decadence of his cell contact, Khalid (Charles Daniel Sandoval)--the drinking, strip-club-frequenting, hooker-john'ing pariah wearing all the ills of the West. But even that's reductive: suddenly Castelo is the very model of the self-hating liberal consciousness; no matter his better intentions, he finds himself blaming the victim for the crime. Our greatest strength--the freedom of choice--is also our greatest weakness. When certain fanatics in this great land of ours start saying this country's laws were founded in Christianity, I like to pretend that that choice is what they're foaming on about.
Abu-Assad's Paradise Now turns its attentions to Palestine's struggle against what they perceive to be an Israeli occupation--the best, most concise meta-irony of it all that this film isn't eligible for an Academy Award because Palestine is not a recognized country. In Paradise Now, mild-mannered burner Said (Kais Nashef) spends his days smoking a hookah with his pal Khaled (Ali Suliman), planning for the day he can quit his dead-end job at an auto-repair shop to clear his family's name (his father was executed as a "collaborator") as a human timebomb. Things go wrong. Said considers blowing up a random bus, and then upon his return, he's offered the love of the daughter of a sainted suicide bomber, Suha (Lubna Azabal), and a life ordinary, fixing cars and swallowing his belief that the cause of eye-for-an-eye retribution is a holy one.
I admire that Suha's character is a returned expatriate, since it makes the temptation of herself easier to discount (corrupted?) in Said's eyes--and I like the loose tone of the piece, marking Paradise Now as the more accomplished film from a narrative standpoint. Even the moment where Abu-Assad recreates DaVinci's "The Last Supper" doesn't pound you with its intent so much as seduce you with its reasonableness. A lot of people have believed themselves to be holy martyrs--only a handful of them have had others who agree. By evoking this iconographic Western image, Abu-Assad ties one clean line between what couldn't be more alien to us and what couldn't be more familiar. The opposite of Buñuel's "Beggar's Banquet" from Viridiana, it's earnest and, shockingly, not embarrassed by that fervour.
Less subtle but just as effective is an absurd scene where Said and Khaled record scripted suicide notes while the ad hoc camera crew eat their lunch and confess that during the whole of one heart-felt take, the camera was broken. Later, the tapes are sold and rented at a discount at the corner drugstore. "The collaborator confessions sell much better than the martyr tapes," the cashier confides. Paradise Now doesn't ascribe morality so much as paint a picture of confusion, anger, and desperation--a toxic stew addling the cognitive abilities of a young man torn between love of his father, his country, and the possibility for a life of little indignities and civil disobedience.