Film Review: Omar

Timely subject matter and a compelling story ultimately win out over uneven performances and score-settling in this Oscar-nominated Palestinian drama.

Though not a direct sequel, Hany Abu-Assad's Omar, one of the five films nominated for the 2014 Foreign Language Oscar, functions as a companion piece to his 2005 feature Paradise Now, which was up for the same award eight years ago. Like that earlier movie, this one unfolds in the turbulent West Bank region where Israeli and Palestinian populations exist uneasily alongside each other and features as its protagonist a self-styled "freedom fighter"—or as others might label him, "terrorist"—who takes an active role in advancing the Palestinian cause. In Paradise Now, that meant strapping on a suicide vest and making their way to an Israeli military check point outside of Tel Aviv, an operation that grows more complicated over the course of 90 tense minutes. In Omar, it means jumping into a car one night with your two buddies and pulling up to a military instillation where one of you puts a bullet in an Israeli soldier before fleeing the scene and covering your tracks…until the cops inevitably comes calling and give you the unwinnable option of becoming an informant or rotting in jail.

As you can tell, the scope of Omar is larger than Paradise Now, which confined its narrative to a single day. This movie spans months and years as the title character (Adam Bakri) navigates through various setbacks and betrayals, some of which are instigated by predictable sources—i.e., the Israeli police, represented by the dogged Agent Rami (Waleed Zuaiter)—while others are brought about by persons closer to home. Through it all, Omar's ultimate goal remains unchanged: marrying and settling down with Nadja (Leem Lubany), the little sister of his best friend and fellow revolutionary Tarek (Eyad Hourani). Indeed, his decision to take part in the killing in the first place is motivated by his twin desire to prove to Tarek that he'd be a good match for Nadja, as well as doing something that, in his mind, will help shape a better tomorrow for their future children.

It's that future that Rami holds over Omar's head after he's caught and thrown in jail, while Tarek and their second accomplice, Amjad (Samer Bisharat), elude capture and go to ground. Omar's mission, if he chooses to accept it (and he'll have to if he ever wants to see daylight again), is to tempt them out of hiding and into the waiting hands of the military. While he signs on to the plan, he has no intention of carrying it out, instead working with Tarek and Amjad to strike another blow against their would-be jailers. But the failure of that double-cross clues Omar into the fact that there's a snake in the grass, and discovering the identity of the traitor will ultimately exact as high a personal toll as a prolonged jail sentence.

Keeping his eye trained on the international market, Abu-Assad crafts Omar to function first and foremost as a crowd-pleasing dramatic thriller rather than an overtly political piece about the ongoing troubles in the West Bank. (The decision to center the film around a love-struck Romeo who is, in a way, only a part-time revolutionary as opposed to a suicide bomber also makes it a more commercial proposition than the controversial Paradise Now.) Of course, politics are inherently bound up in the story and setting and the film has a very clear point of view (one which the writer-director has expressed in interviews) about who holds the moral high ground, as Omar is repeatedly subjected to physical torture at the hands of the Israeli military—or, in another season, humiliation on behalf of passing patrol guards—and treated as a pawn in Rami's counterterrorist chess match. (Though he occasionally displays a certain degree of sympathy for the young man in his custody, the agent ultimately emerges as a figure of coldhearted calculation.) Though this perspective is presented in far less an inflammatory manner than it might have been, it does leave Abu-Assad open to charges of embedding propaganda within a narrative that's otherwise geared towards entertainment.

But that's a question viewers will have to wrestle with themselves, depending on their own attitudes about the Israel/Palestine debate. A more immediate and apparent problem with the film is the uneven quality of the performances, with several key cast members coming across as stiff and artificial in crucial moments. Although Bakri has a sturdy screen presence, there's no emotional connection established between him and his leading lady, a crucial flaw when the crux of his character arc rests on their romance. Similarly, the supposedly dramatic complications that arise between Omar and his friends are undermined by the actors' inability to play those revelations convincingly. There's an unresolved tension between the movie that Abu-Assad has written—a high-concept "Who can you trust?" thriller—and the one he's made, which strives for a more immediate realism though the use of young, inexperienced actors and on-the-ground West Bank locations. It's perhaps no accident then that the picture's most effective performance is delivered by screen veteran Zuaiter, who embraces the movieness of the premise and his role in particular.

Fortunately, the confident plotting and propulsive energy built into Abu-Assad's screenplay do make up for the finished product's shortcomings. The circumstances of Omar's plight are gripping enough to keep you invested in his fate, especially as he grows increasingly isolated from the people he thought he could depend on and, as a result, makes choices that belie the idea that he's an entirely innocent victim of larger forces. In that respect, though Abu-Assad's take on the Israeli presence in the West Bank is clear, he doesn't neglect the consequences of his central character's decision to transition from bystander to soldier. As in Paradise Now, there are no heroic martyrs in Omar—just people making impossible choices in an environment where doing wrong seems the only way to achieve what to them is a greater good.