*This review was originally published on Movie Mezzanine.
There is a danger inherent in political cinema that plagues a vast number of films made within the genre: if the filmmaker tempers personal theories and passionate arguments for the subject at hand, the film can become politically insipid and socially irrelevant; if (s)he uses the film as a platform to voice partisan opinions, it can be dismissed as propaganda. This is particularly pertinent in the case of the long-lasting conflict in the Middle East, where every film, Palestinian or Israeli, has to overcome a set of built-in assumptions before it even reaches the global audience. Hany Abu Assad’s Oscar-nominated Omar is no exception, but it is the rare film that walks the tightrope expertly and finds the right tone of political speech.
Omar follows the titular character, a young Palestinian baker, who routinely scales a wall dividing his village from the Israeli town in which his best friend, Tarek, lives with his family. Omar and Tarek’s younger sister, Nadia, have a blossoming romantic relationship that must remain hidden in the face of religious tradition, but one which they are planning to make official when Omar finally asks her family for her hand. Omar and the hotheaded Tarek spend their free time with a third childhood friend, Amjad, whose small stature and jokester persona set him in stark contrast against Omar and the politically ambitious Tarek. But it is Amjad, who steps up to the occasion when the three of them materialize their thoughtless plan to assassinate an Israeli soldier with a gun shot from afar.
At the hands of an Israeli army that swiftly tracks the offenders down, Omar is detained and ruthlessly tortured and beaten, but not before he tells a wired inmate that “he will never confess.” Taking that statement as his confession, his captors give him two options: serve a 90-year sentence in prison, or turn in Tarek, who is believed by the Israelis to be the shooter. Omar, looking for a chance at redemption and a life with Nadia, makes the obvious pick; but when out of prison, he conspires with his friends to ambush the Israeli soldiers that come after them. The personal and political consequences of Omar’s decision intertwine with and cross-impact the complications of his relationship with Nadia. He is forced both to prove to her and the rest of the community that his early release is not a sign of allegiance to Israelis, and to fight off Amjad’s interest in Nadia, which may not be as unrequited as Omar originally believes.
Hany Abu Assad, whose Oscar-nominated Paradise Now also dealt with the Israel-Palestine conflict, makes no attempt at hiding his frustration with the continued occupation of his homeland. Omar is dressed as a sleek, gracefully stylized thriller, but its ideological adherence is clear. This is not a film that glosses over decades of history and contentious politics simply to balanced. Abu Assad views the occupation as unjust and voices that opinion quite clearly, but not loudly. Omar is not so much an angry fist as it is a rather intelligently argued, passionate sentiment about a situation that has been insidious for everyone involved. This is a film that has the intellect to understand that a decades-long conflict cannot possibly be painted in black and white; it is different shades of gray that can complete a coherent picture.
Assad explores the crippling effects of the occupation on a micro-social level. Juxtaposing scenes of Omar’s mundane day-to-day activities like bread baking or discussing football at dinner with the continuous danger that he is exposed to by something as simple as a rendezvous with his girlfriend reinforces the reality that the conditions in the region are untenable and irrevocably damaging, and that they have intensified, more than ever before, the sense of mutual hatred that has developed after centuries of religious conflict. The means with which the message is conveyed takes different shapes – from brutal torture to casual indifference to the value of human life – but reading between the lines, it is clear that Omar is condemning the crisis, not playing the blame game.
Omar’s only shortcoming is that Assad’s directorial approach feels heavy-handed at times. His compositions and the editing choices often emphasize themes that would have been more effective had they been expressed more subtly. Whereas a shifting visual focus during a kissing scene highlights the innocence of youthful romance and the tenderness with which the actors portray secret lovers, a similarly cut sequence that depicts Omar in front of a billboard boasting a message of hope for the future is rather unnecessarily pronounced. Thankfully, Omar is so tightly bound and skillfully paced that these instances of “message sending” pass all too quickly, taking their place in a puzzle that adds up to much more than the sum of its pieces.
What makes Omar a remarkable accomplishment is that it also works brilliantly as a genre piece, keeping its audience at the edge of their seats for most of the running time. The screenplay’s several twists never fail to surprise, while managing to continually challenge our perceptions of each character as individuals and as social signifiers. This double-edged characterization is aided by a uniformly strong cast of newcomers and a stellar turn from Waleed Zuaiter as an Israeli investigator. The real star of the show, however, is Adam Bakri, whose steely, brooding turn justifies Omar as both a frustrated and naive activist and a restless lover. The burden of the film’s success rests on his young shoulders; Bakri carries it with equal parts gusto and vulnerability, a combination that captures not just the spirit of his character but also the essence of the film.