More trenchant as a political allegory than a character drama, Omar doesn’t quite have the forward momentum or narrative ingenuity to be a fully riveting experience. But that’s hardly a fatal liability: Writer-director Hany Abu-Assad is more interested in the ideas within his slow-burn thriller than in plot machinations. To his mind, maniacal twists and cunning action set pieces would simply get in the way—better that we spend our time thinking about why the characters find themselves in this situation at all.
Nominated for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar, Omar stars Adam Bakri as the titular young Palestinian, who must daily scale the imposingly tall security wall that separates him from his girlfriend, Nadia (Leem Lubany). Though very much in love, they haven’t yet revealed their relationship to her brother (and Omar’s good friend) Tarek (Eyad Hourani), who is planning with Omar and another close pal, Amjad (Samer Bisharat), to kill an Israeli soldier. The three friends’ mission is a success—it’s Amjad who pulls the trigger—but soon after, Omar is snagged by Israeli forces, led by Agent Rami (Waleed F. Zuaiter). Threatening Omar with imprisonment, Rami promises him freedom if he’ll deliver Tarek, the group’s leader, to them in exchange.
The bulk of Omar consists of Omar’s delicate balancing act: He has to turn Tarek in within a month to avoid jail, but at the same time he’s working with Tarek on his next operation. Omar doesn’t tell Tarek about his meeting with Rami—we get the sense that he’s not going to take Rami up on his offer, although we’re not always positive about that—but because Omar’s friends know the Israeli authorities arrested him, there’s a certain amount of suspicion about why he was released so quickly. And while this is all going on, Omar is also considering making his relationship with Nadia public, although he fears how the overly protective Tarek will respond to Omar dating his younger sister.
Born in Palestine, Abu-Assad previously directed Paradise Now, a 2005 drama about Palestinian suicide bombers, which was also nominated for the Foreign Language Oscar. Like Paradise Now, Omar can get bogged down by its message. Both films study the poisonous effects of Israel’s occupation of Palestine, creating an environment of violence and mistrust. No question this is a meaningful political conversation to have, but Abu-Assad’s movies sometimes feel hemmed in by the points he’s trying to make: The storytelling takes a backseat to the issues.
But if Omar suffers as a result, the film is redeemed by Abu-Assad’s deceptively detached style. Omar and his friends’ plan to kill a soldier isn’t presented as triumphant or despairing, just distressingly matter-of-fact. Abu-Assad maintains that low-key tone for the rest of the film, never tipping his hand about how we should feel about Omar’s actions or what the “right” thing for him to do would be. Omar doesn’t see a lot of heroes or villains in its story, instead viewing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as crushingly endless and senseless, stripping either side of the moral high ground.
The performances reflect Abu-Assad’s heartfelt but close-to-the-vest approach. Bakri keeps Omar’s inner world a bit of a mystery, letting us wonder exactly how the young man is processing the competing pressures assaulting him. Also quite good is Zuaiter as the Israeli agent. Rami seems just friendly and empathetic enough that it’s never apparent what his true motivations are. Does he view Omar as just a wayward soul, showing him compassion because he recognizes that Omar’s basically a good kid? Or is it a manipulative ploy to land the bigger prize that he’s after?
What’s most resonant in Omar is that, just as we can’t always gauge the characters, they’re, too, concealing parts of themselves from each other, a byproduct of living in a part of the world where distrust is commonplace and secrecy a necessity. Which is why Omar’s startling ending is both somewhat mystifying and also oddly perfect—we don’t see it coming, and yet deep down, we’re not surprised at all that it happened.
Tim Grierson is chief film critic for Paste. You can follow him on Twitter.
Director: Hany Abu-Assad
Writer: Hany Abu-Assad
Starring: Adam Bakri, Leem Lubany, Waleed F. Zuaiter, Samer Bisharat, Eyad Hourani
Release Date: Feb. 21, 2014