Omar (nominated for Best Foreign Film at this Sunday’s Oscar ceremony) is an emotional thriller that actually works a lot better as raw drama rather than as any type of geo-political statement or message movie that it thinks it can muster.
Omar (Adam Bakri) is a Palestinian baker who routinely climbs over the separation wall to meet up with his girlfriend Nadja (Leem Lubany). By night, he takes on the role of a freedom fighter, ready to risk his life to strike at the Israeli military with his childhood friends Tarek (Eyad Hourani) and Amjad (Samer Bisharat). Arrested after the killing of an Israeli soldier and tricked into an admission of guilt by association, he agrees to work as an informant as the cold reality of being an imprisoned terrorist comes to light. His role in a dangerous game begins and the question that truly remains is an incredibly difficult one. Is he really working with his Israeli handler (Waleed F. Zuaiter) in order to get clear of his troubles and betray his cause, or is he playing him for the benefit of his nation in an attempt to strike at the Israeli military system? And with so few options in front of him, who can he really trust?
While the politics and issues surrounding Israel and Palestine are often complicated and messy at the best of times, Omar successfully manages to keep the current events, politics and drama surrounding the geography of it all in the background while the actions and feelings of these characters take centre stage. Writer/director Hany Abu-Assad keeps everything rooted in the moment with these young idealistic kids who are rebelling and striking back at the society around them at every possible turn. It’s not an overtly political story, it’s one of three friends trying to plan their lives while that nothing ever truly goes to plan. The politics merely inform the story instead of overpowering it. Abu-Assad keeps things tense when he needs to, especially in the moments following Omar’s imprisonment. It can get pretty uncomfortable to Omar’s world crumbling around him when he gets out, too. It works as both a dose of tragedy and as a metaphor for how youthful exuberance can be dashed on his way into adulthood and responsibility in a society still frustratingly searching for its own identity.
To convey that death of innocence the characters have to navigate not only the hard political facts of their surroundings but also the people around them. A young ensemble filled with mostly unknown actors comes through with performances that never feel forced or phony. There’s definitely the sense that these actors are pulling from their own lives and experiences. Bakri is a strong lead, showing the emotional pull that his character has to endure throughout the entire film. Zuaiter brings a considerable amount of experience and gravitas to a role that’s a reflection of the exact kind of lost innocence these young people seek to avoid.