‘Omar’ a tense, irony-laden Middle Eastern thriller/star-crossed romance

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Omar posterOmar

Written and directed by Hany Abu-Assad

Palestine, 2013

Within its first scene, Omar recalls the romantic actions of Shakespeare’s Romeo, as our title character climbs up one wall and jumps down another, both via rope, to approach the shy and reserved girl he’s got his eyes on. But as star-crossed as these lovers may be, it’s not long before this film leaves behind any notion of romantic fatalism; instead, it sticks solely with fatalism as Omar is pushed closer to acting desperately and unthinkingly. Omar, one of this year’s Oscar nominees for Best Foreign-Language Film, is a taut thriller masquerading as an irony-steeped would-be romance, constantly balancing the genres like its lead teetering on both sides of that wall.

That wall, to be clear, is what separates Jerusalem from the Occupied Territories of the West Bank, and this physical separation is at the crux of every shot in Hany Abu-Assad’s film. (He also wrote and produced.) When Omar (Adam Bakri) is speaking with Nadia (Leem Lubany), who’s both his girlfriend and the brother of his freedom-fighter leader Tarek, they are almost always on different sides of the screen, a demarcation between them at all times. The scant moments when they steal a light, chaste kiss or hold hands, it’s both surprisingly, intensely passionate, and filled with unquenchable longing. Omar’s seemingly unbreakable connection to Nadia is what gets him into trouble early on; he’s caught by the Israeli secret police, tortured and cajoled into confessing guilt in a crime he didn’t commit: killing an Israeli soldier. Soon, Omar’s forced into a position where he’s working both sides; he promises the Israelis, personified by the oily Agent Rami (Waleed Zuaiter), to hand Tarek over to them while informing Tarek and the rest about his predicament in hopes of neutralizing the opposition.

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The connection between Omar and Nadia, then, is crucial, as it’s entirely what makes Omar willing to become a traitor, even if on a minor scale. Bakri and Lubany do excellent work here, not only establishing a believable level of chemistry and tightly wound sexual interest that has to be contained at all times. Abu-Assad also deliberately backs away from most of the geopolitical context regarding the battle over the West Bank. It’s easy, if you’re pro-Palestine, to watch Omar and presume you fully grasp Abu-Assad’s interest and allegiances, but there is enough ambiguity in how Tarek and the other freedom fighters are portrayed as to make them less heroes, and more flawed people. Here is the true strength of the film: so much of these characters and their struggles, on a personal and specific level, remains strangely universal. At one late moment, Omar and Nadia discuss her schooling, which she’s put aside for various reasons. She waves it off, saying that she’ll be able to return to her studies someday soon, but her wistful tone is clear enough. Omar is not the only one stuck in a metaphorical pile of quicksand, engulfed by the trappings of life; his quicksand may be deeper and a bit more immediate, but everyone in this story is being sucked under one way or the other.

As Omar progresses, Abu-Assad finds ways to make his script more surprising than might be expected; about halfway through, it seems painfully obvious how the story will end, and yet he manages to swerve away from expectations into something more regretful. Much of what Omar and his friends do in the second half feels clumsy, less on a storytelling level and more on a human level. One climactic squabble, shot in the distance instead of in our faces, is particularly messy and its ramifications allow emotions of the heart to dominate over the third act. Aside from Bakri’s performance–although Lubany and Zuaiter, among a few others, have a decent amount of screen time, he’s on screen for almost the entire film–what makes this film stand out is the calm and unhurried cinematography, especially in the various foot chases. Abu-Assad doesn’t overload these sequences with jittery, handheld camerawork, improving each of them vastly. Though the geography of the Occupied Territories and their various buildings is somewhat impenetrable (all designed with a color scheme so similar that it often feels like Omar is running through the same building multiple times), the ways in which Abu-Assad establishes where Omar and the secret police are in the moment are solidly, if simply, achieved. These moments are far more visceral simply because they’re easier to visually digest.

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Ambiguity is present throughout Omar, up until its tense ending. (The frequent lack of music only amplifies that tension.) We can never be sure exactly how Omar should be viewed. Is he truly a freedom fighter or just a small-time terrorist who merely dreams of being a baker in a world that would allow him such simple pleasures? His fate is seemingly predestined, an invisible hand guiding him towards an unstoppable tragedy. This film depicts his various attempts to back out of this march to the grave, with love as his only saving grace. Omar works both by emphasizing how easy a fate it would be for him to die for his cause, and by clarifying how even a modicum of love could save his soul.

— Josh Spiegel






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