Genre: Drama, Triller
Directed by: Hany Abu-Assad
Starring: Adam Bakri, Leem Lubany, Iyad Hoorani, Samer Bisharat
Boundaries, both real and invisible, mark Omar’s world. While all around him sits beautiful countryside, he’s confined to a tightly delineated life amidst half-built housing, pockmarked alleys and uneven paths. Trapped in this rubble strewn maze with no obvious way out, the temptation to take drastic action rises even if the consequences are likely to be dire. Reigning in the wider focus from his last Palestinian feature, Hany Abu-Assad’s latest cinematic return to Palestine is a gripping and very personal thriller illuminating a paranoid and perilous existence that tears apart any chance of a normal life.
Omar is now the third time Abu-Assad has set a film in Palestine and it serves to marry up the character focus of Rana’s Wedding (2002) and the deeper political implications of 2005’s award winning and highly controversial Paradise Now. It would be wrong to say Omar strips away politics – quite frankly that would be impossible to achieve in a region so torn apart by sharp and so far insoluble differences. Instead, it’s less overt. This is the impact living in Palestine has on life. Abu-Assad’s own political leanings are not in doubt but the rights and wrongs of the situation aren’t really the point.
Violence occurs frequently throughout Omar. Whether it’s the careful rifle shot precipitating their capture, breakneck chases across rooftops and dusty streets or intimidatingly intimate torture sequences, it’s clear that life is not a sedate and uneventful affair. The act of violence itself remains ambiguous in Abu-Assad’s telling. Where Paradise Now saw the insertion of a character to deliberately question the actions of would-be suicide bombers, here everyone is left to get on with it. The ensuing use of force is neither endorsed nor condemned. It’s the impact that really matters as the ongoing cycle of violence is stoked again enacting a significant cost.
We first meet Omar (Adam Bakri) climbing over a massive boundary wall. He pauses briefly at the top only to find himself under fire. Sliding down at the cost of painful rope burns, he makes his way to the house of his mentor Tarek (Iyad Hoorani), also the older brother of Nadia (Leem Lubany), the young woman he dreams of marrying. Later on, he’ll make the same dangerous journey back over the wall just to get home.
It’s on one such trip that he finds himself caught by an Israeli patrol that casually humiliates him. From the way he reacts this is clearly not the first time. It is however the final straw accelerating the retaliation that will rip his life apart. For Omar – along with his boyhood friend Amjad (Samer Bisharat) and Tarek – has a plan. Together, they have been training to attack an Israeli base.
It’s this action, and Omar’s subsequent capture and accidental confession to Israeli agent Rami (Waleed Zuaiter) that sees him returned to the streets to act as an informer. Stuck between his capturers and a desire to track down the person who really blew their cover, Omar finds himself mistrusted by everyone as he tries to find a way through the middle to Nadia and their fading future.
Much of the film plays out in the safe structural confines of a genre thriller. Abu-Assad’s screenplay builds a tottering tower of uncertainties as Omar attempts to track down the traitor while struggling to convince the Israeli’s that he is a turncloak at the same time as reassuring increasingly sceptical friends that he really isn’t. Impressively, his trademark style – one of frequent zooms, circling cameras and extreme close-ups – fits perfectly into this approach. Action scenes are handled with aplomb without sacrificing the tension pervading the rest of the film.
None of this is really the heart of Omar though. These are just his circumstances. The destructive influence it has on his relationship with Nadia and his best friend Amjad and the ease with which his plans disintegrate is what matters most. Occasionally veering too deeply into melodrama, a convincing relationship between Omar and Nadia still develops. A sense of a life on hold emerges as they discuss asking for her hand in marriage and where they might live. There’s always something getting in the way even when they do snatch time together. A close-up on their faces as they kiss is painfully romantic, tinged as it is with the fatalism that seems to cling to Omar.
In a physical role that still requires moments of extreme vulnerability, much is asked of Bakri. That he delivers is deeply impressive, even more so considering this is his debut feature film. In his hands Omar is a strong and capable character under siege from forces far beyond anything one person alone can ever hope to manage. He carries the weight of betrayal, both of and by him, soaking up pressure until it’s impossible to take any more. Watching him struggling to climb the wall later on, out of practice and estranged from his old community, is a heart-breaking experience.
Bakri, rarely off screen, deserves singling out but he’s given strong support, particularly from Lubany and Zuaiter. Zuaiter’s Israeli agent is another masterstroke, a rounded and sympathetic character that avoids the temptation to cast the other side as cartoon villains. Steps like this allow Omar to rise above the genre it unfolds in. Complex characters and mundane moments are littered all over the place. Not everything is tense conversation about spies and underground networks. Marlon Brando impressions and arguments over the team list for a Real Madrid game are more likely.
Omar succeeds because it combines genre twists, tension and betrayal together with the mundanities of a commonplace existence. It’s a striking reminder that for all the grand speeches and heated ideological debates surrounding Palestine, the final impact is a personal one. And far more than just Omar have had to pay the price such discord demands.