In his last film, the unforgettable Paradise Now, Palestinian writer-director Hany Abu-Assad created
almost unbearable tension as he profiled two young suicide bombers with
twenty-four hours to live. His new film takes a different tack: Omar is a character-based drama set in
the occupied West Bank, where the title figure and his two best friends want to
prove their mettle as freedom fighters, even as Omar and one’s pal’s younger
sister fall in love and plan a future together.
But Omar, well played by Adam Bakri, is naïve. For one
thing, he underestimates the influence of the Israeli secret police. When he is
captured after a deadly shooting, he learns that he may spend the rest of his
life in prison. He will never see his beloved Nadia (Leem Lubany) again. The
Israeli in charge of his case (Waleed F. Zuaiter) puts it on the line: if he
wants his freedom, he will have to collaborate. As the story progresses, even
from this point, it’s clear that none of the character’s choices are simple.
Every situation has complex consequences, and that’s what keeps the movie on
track, even as it flirts with melodrama.
A deft blending of thriller and romance, Omar invokes everything from film noir
to Shakespeare. It even incorporates humor at unexpected moments. Abu-Assad is
a storyteller, not a polemicist; his backdrop happens to be his home turf. (In
a conversation in my class at USC last night, he said that the film has been
well received even in Israel, where critics and columnists took it for what it
was: a good story, not a political tract.)
Of course, the volatile setting is more than incidental:
it’s a highly-charged atmosphere where the presence of a traitor affects an
entire community, not just the individuals in the foreground. Abu-Assad knows
this and skillfully weaves the ongoing tensions into his story. He is also a
classicist when it comes to visual presentation: as in Paradise Now, there is no shaky, hand-held camerawork as a
shorthand to indicate chaos or confusion. His pulse-pounding chase scenes
through the streets, markets, alleyways and rooftops are expertly choreographed
and edited, without resorting to Bourne-like
Omar is a nominee
for Best Foreign Language Film, and while it faces stiff competition it is
completely worthy of that honor.