NEW YORK (Jan. 5)
Comparisons are, of course, unfair. One film, “Munich,” is the work of Steven Spielberg, the most influential and creative talent in contemporary cinema. It is backed by all the technical and financial resources of the American film industry. The settings are diverse and beautifully filmed, and the screenplay is rich, textured and thought-provoking.
The other, “Paradise Now,” directed by Hany Abu-Assad, a largely unknown documentarian, has the look of something created under difficult circumstances. It often seems unfinished with pallid, washed-out settings, occasionally laughable subtitles, and stilted, unnatural dialogue. (Indeed, the characters too often sound like ideologies instead of flesh-and-blood human beings.)
Spielberg and Abu-Assad have each chosen to explore the netherworld of terrorism, although from opposite angles.
Spielberg’s protagonist is a Mossad agent, Avner Kaufman, recruited to lead a team of undercover assassins tasked with tracking down and killing 11 individuals behind the massacre of Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympics in 1972. Dutch-Palestinian filmmaker Abu-Assad focuses on two friends who are plucked off the Nablus street and recruited as suicide bombers. In each film, injustices are asserted and individuals are asked to redress them by exacting the ultimate retribution.
The argument in each movie revolves around the struggle for a home and for dignity. In each, the higher cause justifies the basest behavior. Avner’s mother doesn’t want to know what he is doing but assures him that preserving a homeland where Jews can live in freedom is justification enough for anything.
In “Paradise Now,” the Palestinian leader argues that it is the Israelis who have created suicide bombers by humiliating the Palestinians and denying them their home.
Yet for the characters, the argument is never that simple. Both films insist on examining a struggle of conscience. After completing one assignment in “Munich,” the Israelis look to biblical precedent while arguing whether to celebrate or mourn what they had done. In “Paradise Now” one of the leading characters, the daughter of an early leader of the movement, is a voice of reason, passionately arguing the futility of suicide bombing, looking for another way to continue the struggle. It is noteworthy that in both films, horrific acts are deterred by the unanticipated presence of a child. Clearly, each director wants us to see the challenge to human conscience inherent in the dark drama of the circumstances portrayed.
Interestingly, relations and attitudes toward fathers serve as a thematic marker in each movie.
The Palestinian woman cited above is inferentially struggling against the influence of her revered father in “Paradise Now.” Moreover, one of the suicide bombers struggles with the burden of a father who collaborated with the Israelis. In “Munich,” Avner’s father was himself a leader in Israel’s clandestine services, and the mysterious person who provides Avner with leads on Palestinian targets and who may have eventually betrayed the Israeli is known as “Papa.”
As a bigger (in every sense of the term) film, “Munich” has experienced far more scrutiny than “Paradise Now.” Ironically, many film critics have tended to overlook the weak cinematic values of the Palestinian movie because of its courageous decision to address a highly flammable topic. On the other hand, many Jewish organizational leaders and supporters of Israel have excoriated “Munich” for a putative moral equivalency between the Israelis as extra-judicial protectors against terrorism and the Palestinians as perpetrators of it.
However, these criticisms fail to account for the way that movies address issues. Film is a visual medium. One sees in Avner’s struggle against his doubts and growing paranoia the depth of his effort to maintain his basic humanity. By contrast, “Paradise Now” rushes in an entirely different direction. There, the more serious of the two potential suicide bombers struggles to suppress his basic humanity in order to be able to inflict the carnage that is the goal of a suicide mission.
“Paradise Now” rushes to a shocking, though inevitable, conclusion. The indeterminacy at the end of “Munich,” however, is unsettling and all the more poignant for that. It is true that, on one level, Avner turns his back on his mission and perhaps even his country. Supporters of Israel are understandably pained by that. But Spielberg is working on a broader canvas.
In a real sense, “Munich” is about Avner’s struggle to preserve and protect his humanity in the face of crushingly powerful imperatives leading him away from it. His is not the world of Ari Ben Canaan, the hero of Leon Uris’ Zionist novel “Exodus.” It isn’t a world of good Jews and bad Arabs. It is a darkly compromised twilight world where the rules of struggle are created one assassination at a time and the consequences unwind slowly and indeterminately.
Since leaving the field of Jewish communal service, Lawrence Rubin spends a lot of time at the movies.