In his last film, the unforgettable Paradise Now, Palestinian writer-director Hany Abu-Assad created
almost unbearable tension as he profiled two young suicide bombers with
twenty-four hours to live. His new film takes a different tack: Omar is a character-based drama set in
the occupied West Bank, where the title figure and his two best friends want to
prove their mettle as freedom fighters, even as Omar and one’s pal’s younger
sister fall in love and plan a future together.
But Omar, well played by Adam Bakri, is naïve. For one thing, he underestimates the influence of the Israeli secret police. When he is captured after a deadly shooting, he learns that he may spend the rest of his life in prison. He will never see his beloved Nadia (Leem Lubany) again. The Israeli in charge of his case (Waleed F. Zuaiter) puts it on the line: if he wants his freedom, he will have to collaborate. As the story progresses, even from this point, it’s clear that none of the character’s choices are simple. Every situation has complex consequences, and that’s what keeps the movie on track, even as it flirts with melodrama.
A deft blending of thriller and romance, Omar invokes everything from film noir to Shakespeare. It even incorporates humor at unexpected moments. Abu-Assad is a storyteller, not a polemicist; his backdrop happens to be his home turf. (In a conversation in my class at USC last night, he said that the film has been well received even in Israel, where critics and columnists took it for what it was: a good story, not a political tract.)
Of course, the volatile setting is more than incidental: it’s a highly-charged atmosphere where the presence of a traitor affects an entire community, not just the individuals in the foreground. Abu-Assad knows this and skillfully weaves the ongoing tensions into his story. He is also a classicist when it comes to visual presentation: as in Paradise Now, there is no shaky, hand-held camerawork as a shorthand to indicate chaos or confusion. His pulse-pounding chase scenes through the streets, markets, alleyways and rooftops are expertly choreographed and edited, without resorting to Bourne-like dizziness.
Omar is a nominee for Best Foreign Language Film, and while it faces stiff competition it is completely worthy of that honor.