By Eric Kohn | Indiewire February 19, 2014 at 12:22PM
Setting aside the undeniable entertainment value of "Gravity" and "American Hustle," several of this year’s Oscar contenders share an uncharacteristically bleak quality, most notably "12 Years a Slave" and "The Act of Killing" — a double bill of persecution narratives that only a sadist would program. Yet even as Steve McQueen’s slavery opus and documentarian Joshua Oppenheimer’s disturbingly eccentric portrait of Indonesian torturers have managed a fair amount of publicity for their distinct approaches to dark human behavior, they’re not alone in that perspective. With best foreign language film nominee "Omar," which opens in limited release this week, they form one dour trifecta.
But only "Omar," the tense account of a Palestinian man pressured by Israeli authorities to inform on his friends, takes place in the troubled present. The latest missive against the challenges of daily life in the Occupied Territories from Hany Abu-Assad (whose "Paradise Now," also an Oscar nominee, chronicled the exploits of two would-be suicide bombers), "Omar" maintains an unsettling rhythm of suspense and sociopolitical critique throughout — starting with its opening image of Omar (Adam Bakri) jumping over the wall separating his town from the Israeli territory where his girlfriend resides.
The harsh physical endeavors that Omar endures in order to visit his worried partner Nadja (Leem Lubany) run counter to his otherwise humble life as a local baker. By focusing on an everyman, Abu-Assad immediately makes Omar’s claustrophobic lifetyle immediately relatable — which tinges his ultimate hardships with palpable dread.
The dangers of the world around Omar impact him by default: Nadja’s older brother Tarek (Eyad Hourani) is a radical militant figure stalked by Israeli intelligence; when Omar gets incarcerated and interrogated by an Israeli official (Waleed F. Zuaiter) after a daring chase sequence, he’s forced into a moral quandary: Work as a double-agent for the Israelis, thus betraying his friend and by extension his lover, or risk the potentially worse possibility of winding up behind bars indefinitely. Omar’s scenes with Nadja show a passionate, believable romance hovering under the threat of tragedy. From the outset, it’s a no-win scenario, which Abu-Assad explores with relentless intensity. His camera often closes in on Omar’s shifting expressions, which alternate between fear and suspicion, reflecting similar emotions that register on the faces meeting him at every turn.
Unlike “Paradise Now,” which turned on the constant uneasiness of whether or not its suicide-bound protagonists would go through their plans, "Omar" is thoroughly unpredictable, even as its blunt finale leaves the impression of an inevitable outcome. But the director complicates Omar's downward spiral toward self-destruction by staging certain scenes with fast-paced encounters between Omar and the Israelis worthy of an action movie. The escapist dimension is routinely at odds with the reality of the situation, as if Abu-Assad means to represent the hardships of Palestinian life and the exaggerated perception of it by the rest of the world. By the end, however, there’s doubting the movie’s polemical aspect as it depicts the Israeli officer’s ability to smother his victim’s conscience for the sake of a questionable cause.
"Omar" isn’t alone in this condemnation. Serendipitously making the festival rounds last year a few months after "Omar," first-time Israeli director Yuval Adler's "Bethlehem" also revolves around a conflicted young Palestinian man dragged into an Israeli intelligence scheme against his will. The plot of the two movies resemble each other to a shocking degree, right down to their closing moments, leading to the perception that the role of Israeli intelligence on Palestinian innocents is currently at the center of tensions fueling the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Neither movie features overtly political content; instead, they present the personal ramifications of a battle much larger than the people forced to fight in it.
Nothing in the Oscar race this year addresses a contemporary issue with the same degree of immediacy. Even "The Act of Killing" provides some modicum of release with its stylistic weirdness and historical distance, while the modern ingredients of "12 Years a Slave" arrive only by implication. While both effectively confront the demons of the past, "Omar" finds them hiding in plain sight.
Criticwire Grade: A-
HOW WILL IT PLAY? Adopt Films releases "Omar" in New York and Los Angeles this week ahead of a nationwide release. Its elevated profile from the Oscars, paired with strong word of mouth and topicality, should yield solid returns in select markets.