Director Hany Abu-Assad’s latest, the Oscar-nominated Omar, is sometimes a thriller, sometimes a love story, sometimes a political drama, and sometimes all three at once.
How it manages that so well, I’m not sure, but it never feels false or forced and that’s a testament to the storytelling abilities of Abu-Assad (probably best known for his suicide-bomber drama Paradise Now), who in Omar uses an almost all-green cast to weave his tale of a group of freedom fighters in the Occupied Territories.
Omar (Adam Bakri, in his first feature-film role) and his two childhood friends Tarek and Amjad (Iyad Hoorani and Samer Bisharat, in their first roles ever) are part of an underground cell planning to attack an Israeli base and assassinate a soldier. Any soldier will do, it seems; they just want to send a message – that they can pull it off, and that they’re fed up with the occupation and arbitrary road blocks and searches. If that sounds heavy, it is, but Abu-Assad prefaces this with scenes setting up these men’s relationships. They joke around and rag on each other like friends would. Abu-Assad, who also wrote the screenplay for Omar, has a real ear for conversation. It’s not all work and no play for Omar and co., and instead of taking you out of the moment, these scenes help lend the movie a sense of realism. Omar is in love with Nadia (Leem Lubany, also her first role ever) and while the feelings are reciprocated, the relationship is complicated by the fact that she is Tarek’s younger sister.
The night of the killing is taut – Abu-Assad seamlessly goes from showing the three friends hanging out to them hot-wiring a car and setting up a sniper rifle. There’s something incredibly amateurish and childish in the three friends’ plan: they practise takedowns on a dirty mattress and their target practice involves sniping an old microwave oven in the forest. Tarek came up with the plan and Omar stole the car, so Amjad has to do the sniping. Even if he’s nervous, it’s only fair, his two co-collaborators tell him. (He was the best shot in the forest, though, so it did make sense for Amjad to have taken the shot that kills the Israeli soldier).
Israeli forces aren’t taking this lying down (we later learn there’s a mole in the Omar and co.’s cell who betrayed the three in exchange for a visa to New Zealand), and the next morning they are chasing the trio out of a restaurant until they catch and arrest Omar. They know he didn’t shoot the soldier, but they know he knows where they can find the shooter, whom they think is Tarek. “I will never confess,” he tells a prison snitch. They have him dead to rights: for them, “I will never confess” is a confession by association and Omar is soon forced to cooperate with the Israeli army – after a chilling interrogation scene – or spend the rest of his days behind bars, far away from Nadia. Omar is released on the condition that he will deliver Tarek to Israel’s army, a deal he struck with the sympathetic Israeli agent Rami (Waleed Zuaiter). Things get complicated for Omar upon his release as he gets accused of conspiring with Israel and being a traitor. It’s a delicate ride – and Bakri proves up for the task – as he has to convince both sides he’s one of them.
There’s not much buzz behind Abu-Assad’s Omar ahead of the Academy Awards, where it’s nominated in the foreign-film category against Golden-Globe winner The Great Beauty, The Hunt and Broken Circle Breakdown, but there should be. It’s a terrific thriller with twists at every turn, a love story that is at once beautiful and heartbreaking and a political drama that has its characters question the loyalties and friendships the film’s so intricately set up. Omar is an unexpectedly involving film with a knockout ending. The credits roll to absolutely no music at all – a nice touch and an opportunity to digest what just transpired.
Omar opens in Montreal Feb. 21. It plays at Cineplex Forum with English subtitles and Excentris with French subtitles.