One of the most amazing and revelatory experiences I’ve ever had in a movie theater occurred three weeks ago at a multiplex in suburban New Jersey. The occasion was a subscription series of upcoming releases where I sometimes moderate post-screening discussions. I faced the task in this instance, I’ll admit, with a certain amount of trepidation. The order of the evening involved showing a Palestinian-made drama about suicide bombers–one that doesn’t explicitly condemn the practice, to boot–to an audience that was American, middle class and, according to the series’ organizer, overwhelmingly Jewish.

While Hany Abu-Assad’s Paradise Now unreeled, the proverbial pin could have been heard dropping, so I had no idea what the audience was thinking. It was when I got up afterward and asked, as I generally do, for a show of hands to indicate their approval that the surprise hit. Roughly 85 to 90 percent of the audience responded, and did so with a passion–later echoed in their remarks–that made this perhaps the most enthusiastic reception I’ve seen a film in the series get. When I asked who disliked it, only one guy, in an audience of maybe 400, raised his hand.

What makes a suburban American-Jewish audience embrace a Palestinian film about suicide bombers? Though it’s a terrific piece of filmmaking, I don’t think Paradise Now itself can claim all the credit.

The audience too, in my view, deserves a share of the credit. In their comments after the film, I sensed a real impatience with the dishonest, reductive ways the situation in Israel and the occupied territories are dealt with in the American media. Their eagerness for a deeper, more nuanced account has nothing fundamental to do with a particular political allegiance; one can understandably be avid for an accurate portrayal of an adversary’s point of view. Indeed, the sense I kept getting from this audience was, At last, someone’s giving us the truth about the Palestinians. If it’s a Palestinian behind the camera, bully for him.

I would also credit some of the movie’s impact to the special powers of film and the particular place cinema occupies in our culture right now. For all I know, Nightline or Newsweek may have offered up any number of insightful reports from inside the occupied territories. But these do not carry the elevating power of drama or the forceful singularity of an artist’s voice. And they appear in organs of media so bound to safe corporate viewpoints that they invariably dilute the passion of individual visions with the formulas mislabeled “balance” and “objectivity.”

Those same corporate media have responded to Paradise Now with a revealing cautiousness. Yes, the film has received almost universal praise–in the reviews pages. What’s missing, in the news pages, is any notice that Abu-Assad’s movie is a genuine historic event: the first time the Palestinians’ view of their own situation has been put before American audiences by a division of a major U.S. studio. (The only remotely comparable cinematic milestone is Gillo Pontecorvo’s Battle of Algiers. But that classic account of an Arab anti-colonial resistance met the world only after the French occupation of Algeria had ended.)

Perhaps understandably, Warner Independent Pictures has evidenced a similar caution, declining to push the film as the historic turn that it is or to claim deserved credit for a measure of courage in daring to release it. (Who knows, the company might have been even more cautious had it not released the year’s big art-house crossover smash, March of the Penguins. I half expected to see penguins on Paradise Now‘s posters.)

The movie wins over audiences, in the first place, not because of any overt political stance but because it is such a powerful, brilliantly imagined entertainment. Abu-Assad’s premise could hardly be simpler. Said (Kais Nashef) and Khaled (Ali Suliman) are average-joe Palestinians, young car mechanics without spouses or kids, who belong to an unspecified radical group. Both have committed themselves to act as suicide bombers, and not long after the movie begins, leaders of the group take them up on that promise. The two lifelong friends are given but a day to prepare to die.

That day passes quickly as Said and Khaled have their last interchanges with family members, receive instructions from their group (they’re told that angels will lift them into heaven), and videotape amusingly fumbled statements about the reasons for their forthcoming act. They are then shorn and dressed in black suits, which leaves them looking uncannily like what they’re supposed to be: guests at a Jewish wedding.

Only minutes after setting off on their mission, however, things go wrong. With explosives taped to their midriffs, Said and Khaled are separated in enemy territory. The rest of the tale follows their desperate, disorienting attempts to find each other and either complete or abort their lethal mission.

The film thus has the form of a thriller, but one with a special edge. The comparisons many reviewers have made to the films of Alfred Hitchcock are certainly apt. In recent times “thriller” has come to mean a monotonous reliance on action, explosions and mayhem. Hitchcock knew that, to the contrary, real, gut-grabbing thrills belong not to what happens on screen but to what the audience knows can happen. The ticking bomb under the table is always more riveting than a city-destroying conflagration.

Abu-Assad (whose previous films include Rana’s Wedding and two acclaimed documentaries, Ford Transit and Nazareth 2000) follows the Hitchcockian model with faultless precision and nerve-rattling craft; for most of its length his film keeps the viewer rapt in breathless, edge-of-your-seat suspense. Yet Paradise Now has an extra charge that Hitchcock never envisioned: our awareness that the places we are seeing, like the political conflicts being dramatized, are real.

In that sense, the film is like a thriller cross-wired with a documentary. And no small degree of courage was required to film it in situ. As J. Hoberman noted in the Village Voice, “Making Paradise Now was a heroic undertaking: the movie was shot on location in Nablus, as well as Abu-Assad’s hometown, Nazareth, with the filmmakers dodging nearly daily firefights and missile attacks while walking a cautious line between the Israeli occupying army and various Palestinian armed factions.” The production even stopped for a while after the kidnapping of its location manager by a Palestinian group (he was released after Abu-Assad appealed to Yasir Arafat) caused several European crew members to quit and go home.

The film’s air of palpable authenticity extends to the human and ideological complexities it depicts. Its third main character, a young woman named Suha (Lubna Azabal) who has an incipient romantic interest in Said, shows us the educated, relatively well-off and cosmopolitan sides of Palestinian society. The daughter of a PLO leader, she was raised in North Africa and Paris, and supports political rather than violent action as the proper means to advance the cause of Palestinian statehood and end the Israeli occupation.

We sense that the film shares her analysis of the situation and her moral opposition to suicide bombing, yet, as she does, it also understands the emotional mainsprings beneath the choice of violence. In one of the many scenes that stick in the memory long after Paradise Now is over, the manager of a video store notes that while he rents out suicide bombers’ last statements like the one Said and Khaled recorded, he does a brisker business in tapes showing the confessions (under torture, presumably) of Palestinians condemned as collaborators.

Why would the testaments of nominal martyrs be less appealing than the evidence of treason? You might blame a universal morbid fascination with shame and abjection. But in this context, it’s hard to escape the sense that there are strong historical, cultural and, above all, emotional reasons for Palestinians to fixate on a certain aspect of the life imposed on them by the Israeli occupation: humiliation.

The same sense comes through in other scenes, such as one where we see the routine humiliations forced on Palestinians at Israeli checkpoints. Yet it is most striking and important in the moment when we finally learn of Said’s personal motivations for the path he has chosen. Like so many others, he was born in a refugee camp. As bad as that might have been, his life changed for the worse at the age of 10, when his father was exposed as a collaborator and killed.

How does a child recover from such a blow? Obviously, many don’t. And the subsequent damage they do–to themselves as well as others–is obviously far beyond any reasoned arguments about rights, issues or political tactics. Such injuries seep into the cultural ground where they occur, resisting even the most ingenious and compassionate of cures.

Paradise Now is of course not a film “about” suicide bombing in an abstract or didactic sense. It’s about the human realities that have produced–and go on producing–such horrors in one particularly tragic part of the world. In bringing these realities to U.S. screens so forcefully and eloquently, Hany Abu-Assad deserves our thanks. His film’s impact on American minds may accomplish more in a few months than the Bush administration’s mealy-mouthed prevarications and neocon-decreed support of Israeli hardliners has accomplished in five years.