In large and small ways, the media confront us each day with realities that are larger than we are, and yet rarely do these realities touch us in any lasting way. Global warming, for example, is a crushing problem, but most of us won’t be truly concerned about it until our homes are flooded by overflowing oceans. War, and its daily presence in other cultures, most certainly in the Middle East, is another one: we don’t think of what life side-by-side with bombings, terrorism and other horrors must be like because we never see the details of that life: the news, as reported, is an abstraction. Omar, the newest film from Hany Abu-Assad, the director of the suicide-bomber story Paradise Now among other films, brings the concept of life in a war-addled clime to viewers as anything but an abstraction. The film draws its greatest strength from its smallest touches: the way someone smiles, the way a love letter is folded, the small habits and quirks an otherwise brutal person might possess. We watch those details, absorb them, are fascinated by them. Then, when the larger-than-life world intrudes, we are all the more horrified because we feel as if, in the flickering way we might “know” a character in a film, we know the people bearing the brunt of the intrusion.
It doesn’t hurt that the characters here are so personable, and distinct from one another. In fact it makes the central love triangle in the film, which is intertwined with the story of three freedom fighters whose working bond ultimately erodes because of mutual suspicion, all the more wrenching. In the opening, we watch Omar (Adam Bakri) climbing a city wall in occupied Palestine to see his love, Nadia (Leem Lubany), the sister of Tarek (Eyad Hourani), one of Omar’s fellow fighters; Omar is shot at, just as he clears the top. Omar’s path through the film remains like this: rife with danger and the threat of either death or imprisonment. The three young men—Tarek, Omar, and Abjan (Samer Bisharat), the clown of the trio (and also in love with Nadia)—interact with great ease. Their banter is so spontaneous and funny at times, like electrified small talk, that it rings Tarantino-esque, even as its backdrop is horrific. Not twenty minutes into this film, Omar is arrested and imprisoned. His chief questioner, Agent Rami, is a menace, though you wouldn’t think it. He’s full of humanizing little gestures, like a nervous consumption of Tic-Tacs. Waleed Zuaiter’s performance projects a relaxation hiding a more tense, complex spirit—and a deep desire to get information out of Omar about his operations. Their dialogue has a mood we’ve seen before, in other films, ranging from Pacino and DeNiro’s interchange in Heat to Denzel Washington’s prison interrogation room banter with Russell Crowe’s detective in American Criminal: predator and prey, circling around each other, pretending otherwise. The comparison to American suspense movies goes farther, indeed, as there is something near-breathless about the film’s pace—Omar is a fast runner, but he seems even faster here because you know what he’s running from. The torture scenes are unmitigated, as are the scenes in Omar’s cell, where, again, details take over. Lying still after a long beating, Omar sees a small bug crawling across the floor. Suddenly he, and we, pay far more attention to that bug than we might normally, as the camera moves in on it: the bug, in fact, becomes a metaphor for any number of things. A feeling of humiliation. A sense of powerlessness. A quality of innocence. At one point, Omar whispers to the small, green bug: “It will be okay,” summoning hope from who knows what quarter.
The love story between Omar and Nadia doesn’t really get happier as it goes along. It starts so sweetly, with Nadia bringing the three cohorts tea, slipping a note for Omar under his cup, and telling Abjan she won’t serve him until he imitates Marlon Brando, in a small, Tarantino-esque move. (Abjan only makes a few sounds, but he does a good job.) The notes Omar and Nadia pass each other are, yes, an old-fashioned trope, but the clash of the gesture’s innocence with a violence-drenched backdrop sends out static sparks. They tell each other little stories in their notes, and speak lyrically and expansively, the way people do when they first fall in love. Unfortunately, when the “real world” crashes into their love, all innocence ends. Omar is placed in prison several times over the course of the film; with each sentence, his comrades’ suspicion increases that he is informing on them. Also, his love becomes more complicated with each departure as Nadia’s interest shifts to Abjan. The love triangle eventually collapses, as one would suspect it would, and the film milks poignancy from that collapse. There’s no melodrama, here, very little screaming or fighting. As with the rest of the film, what we notice are the nuances, such as Nadia’s whispered “okay” when her father asks her if she will accept her suitor’s hand in marriage, as if he were asking her to pass a plate of food. The dissolution of love is not the only sad news this movie brings us—although the other news is delivered with a similarly devastating lack of fanfare.
It would be enough for Omar to be a successful action film set in a politically fraught part of the world. It would also suffice for it be a well-told and tastefully handled love story. But this film manages to mix and blend the two with tremendous grace. And, more importantly, it puts a human face on events which are perpetually changing history but which remain un-absorbed until they are at our doorstep, knocking, and then entering unasked.Max Winter is the Editor of Press Play.