While working as a thriller with its taut, suspenseful moments, Palestinian film “Omar” looks below an ongoing conflict through its fully-realized characters and their gloomy, desperate drama. As observing the characters stuck in an impossible situation full of gray morality and constant danger, the movie generates a number of powerful moments from its gripping plot, and we come to think about the harsh political reality reflected through its human story as understanding and caring about its characters.
When we see its young hero Omar (Adam Bakri) in the opening scene, this young Palestinian baker living around the West Bank area is about to deal with one daily difficulty in his life – a big separation wall which has separated him from his childhood friends living behind the wall. When no one is around him, he quickly begins to climb along the wall with a rope put upon it in advance, and then he is almost shot by someone when he is about to go over the wall. He does this risky climbing again and again throughout the film, and we come to see that he is pretty much accustomed to that kind of danger.
We meet his two close friends Tarek (Iyad Hoorani) and Amjad (Samer Bisharat), and it does not take much time for us to see that there is something going on between Omar and Tarek’s younger sister Nadia (Leem Lubany). Because this is the world still governed by old traditions, Omar and Nadia have to hide their mutual feelings in front of others until their relationship is officially recognized to proceed to formal marriage, but that does not stop these young lovers from showing affection to each other when nobody is looking at them. They sometimes exchange notes between them, and they frequently meet each other in the corners of buildings and alleys, and they usually dream about their happy life as a couple, though it is something beyond their reach in the world they inhabit.
The conflict between Israel and Palestine is not mentioned often in the film, but we feel it as an oppressing fact of life hovering over everyone in the film. At one point, Omar is stopped by three Israeli soldiers not long after he went through another perilous climbing, and their vicious harassment on him makes Omar more angry and frustrated about the hardships in his world which seem to have no end in sight for him and other Palestinian people.
We see that Omar and his friends have been preparing themselves as fighters, but they look rudimentary at best during the training at their shabby private place, though it looks like they are connected to some local brigades. Believing that they are doing something for their oppressed people and country as freedom fighters, they attempt a small surprise attack on an Israeli military camp without much thoughts on what can be resulted, and it turns out that they are going to pay the price far bigger than imagined. Because a soldier was killed as a consequence, the Israeli Police swiftly respond to this incident, and, unlike his more fortunate friends, Omar is quickly captured and then incarcerated in a prison.
After the brutal, unforgiving interrogation in a room shrouded in stark darkness, Omar’s dire circumstance becomes worse when he finds himself trapped by Agent Rami (Waleed Zuaiter, who also worked as one of the producers of the film), a willy man who initially approaches to Omar as a fellow Palestinian prisoner and then gets what he exactly wants for forcing Omar to become an informer. It was just a simple sentence causally coming out of Omar’s mouth during their secretly recorded conversation, but that is more than enough to get Omar imprisoned for at least 90 years, and Omar has no choice but to become Rami’s informer in the end.
As soon as he is released from the prison, Omar sees that he is an expendable pawn sandwiched between both sides. Although his friends are glad about his release, his relationship with them is now a lot different from what it used to be, and his friends and others are more aware of the possibility of betrayal. Tarek, who becomes a more prominent figure after that incident, is convinced that there is an informer around him, so Omar must be more careful as tiptoeing on the line between his friends and Rami, who can haul Omar back to the prison at any time if he thinks Omar is no longer useful to him.
Quietly accumulating suspense along its tense plot whose turns come with surprise and complexity, the movie generates a palpable sense of suffocation which is mainly represented by the separation wall and narrow alleys, and it also has a couple of good chase sequences as Omar frantically tries to evade people chasing after him. These sequences may look simple, but we see Omar running away with real risks as the camera follows after him in its swift, fluid movement coupled with judicious editing, and I must say that several shots in the film made me curious about the safety measures during its shooting.
Nevertheless, this is a movie mainly driven by story and characters, and the director/writer Hany Abu-Assad, who previously directed Oscar-nominated film “Paradise Now” (2005), deftly handles a number of plot turns in his story while not losing its human dimension. Like “Paradise Now” has a fair share of humor and warmth despite being a very dark film involved with suicidal bombing, “Omar” is occasionally amusing or intimate as focusing on its characters, and there is even a small moment of black humor when Omar says something barely audible to his savage interrogator.
The main cast members, most of whom made a debut in this film, look natural and effortless in their performances. Adam Bakri instantly comes to us as a likable young hero we can root for, and he and his co-actress Leem Lubany play well with each other in their different scenes. While Samer Bisharat and Iyad Hoorani are competent in their supporting roles, Waleed Zuaiter is particularly good during his scenes with Bakri; Rami can be merciless, but he is simply a man doing his job as ordered, and we come to sense that he sort of likes Omar even though Omar is still more or less than an asset to be exploited.
I happened to watch “Omar” with Israeli film “Bethlehem” (2013), and I was intrigued by how these two overlapping films, both of which were coincidentally made during the same year, complement each other through their different perspectives. “Omar”, which received Special Jury Award at the Cannes Film Festival in last year and then was deservedly Oscar-nominated in the Best Foreign Language Film category early in this year, is more successful than the latter in my opinion, but both of them are honest about the maddening complexity inside the conflict between Israel and Palestine, and they clearly perceive that there is no simple solution at all for this messy problem which has only been getting worse and worse in these days. Whatever will happen in the end, we can only hope things may get better someday.