Published Feb 27, 2014A young man named Omar plans and executes a murder in cold blood with his pals. Omar is caught, beaten, and then flipped by police before being released. The cops claim to have scandalous information regarding his girlfriend Nadja (Leem Lubany), and will expose it unless he complies. Now, Omar (Adam Bakri) must work both sides in an effort to save his own skin, protect his girlfriend, and do the right thing for his friends. How will he accomplish this?
This, divorced from its political context, is the basic plot behind Omar, Hany Abu-Assad's latest thriller. Omar, then, is a film far less concerned with the moral implications of the murder that sets its story in motion than in the fate of the murderers viz. this ethical dilemma ("Do I work with the police to save myself?"). It is, on this level, very difficult to watch.
But, of course, one cannot and must not divorce the plot from its political context, for this is in every way a political film. The murder is of an Israeli soldier, and Omar and his pals are Palestinian freedom fighters. Their action is understood (by them, anyway, but it sure feels like by the filmmakers too) as an act of war, and is therefore justifiable. The film is, in uncomfortable, challenging ways, about the tyranny of Israel in Palestine, but it is also, regrettably, inches away from an outright celebration of acts of violence against the occupying forces. Indeed, Omar never properly addresses the central issue of the use of violence — murder — to service the agenda of these Palestinian freedom fighters, and its final scene only throws more sand in our eyes on this score.
This is a fascinating, and worthy set of themes to explore, and could have made for a deeply rewarding film about moral relativism in the face of oppression. But, unlike, say, The Battle of Algiers, Omar tries to wrap its story in the clothes of a doomed love affair, a Romeo and Juliet of sorts, and thus sabotages its political depth to the point of oblivion.
Though the highly naturalistic performances in the two lead roles are compelling, and the actors themselves are luminous onscreen, their story is never properly fleshed out. It is never precisely clear why they like each other, much less love each other, and anyway, despite some elegant plotting and occasional bursts of creative storytelling, Omar mostly uses Nadja as a prop: she's a means to tell this young man's story, and to seal the fate of his conspirators. The result is worse than irritating: Who is this woman? Why doesn't she have any control over her own mind, her own role in this story? Like a narrative ping pong ball, she is batted around to suit the tale. It's hard to take the story seriously as a result.
Still, despite all of this, there is a seat-edge thrill to the cat-and-mouse action that takes over in the middle third of the film. But, whatever good will is here accumulated is squandered when the film culminates in a moment that feels so lazy as to be tantamount to pulling a tablecloth from under a carefully set dinner service.