Hany Abu-Assad, director & writer
The Palestinian entry to the Oscars, Omar will open on Feb. 28, to take maximum advantage of the Academy Awards ceremony on Sunday, March 2.
The winner of the prestigious Jury Prize in the Un Certain Regard section of the Cannes film festival, Omar is a thoughtful thriller set in the Occupied Territories. It is the subject of much controversy since director Hany Abu-Assad and actors Adam Bakri and Leem Lubany are all Israeli citizens, though they’re Arab. But Abu-Assad and the actors consider themselves to be Palestinian and the film was made with funds separate from official Israeli organisations—an argument convincing enough for the Academy.
Abu-Assad’s 2005 film about suicide bombers Paradise Now was nominated for an Oscar; he is clearly a talented filmmaker who has captured the attention of critics and organisations worldwide.
Omar, a baker in the Occupied Territories is in love with his friend Tarek’s sister Nadia. So is another close friend, Amjad—but neither he nor Omar is willing to talk to Tarek about it.
The trio, friends since childhood, want to strike a blow for Palestinian independence. Hiding in a tree-lined field, they assassinate an Israeli soldier and escape. But soon after, the Israelis capture Omar, and they seem to know everything about the case. They beat Omar to try to spark a confession but nothing happens. Then a supposed Palestinian leader has lunch in the prison commissary with Omar—and gets him to say that he’ll never confess.
The “Palestinian” is really an Israeli inspector named Rami, and Omar’s statement amounts to a confession. Trapped, Omar is offered two possibilities: a 90-year prison sentence or his betrayal of Tarek, who is a underground leader. Rami doesn’t seem to care that Amjad likely shot the Israeli soldier—the objective is Tarek.
Released, Omar tells Tarek and Amjad about the Israeli plot. Together with others, they plan to trap the Israelis when they come to capture Tarek. Meanwhile, Omar continues to see Nadia secretly but he’s disturbed when he realises that Amjad is also going to more than one rendezvous with her.
Tarek’s plan to turn the tables on the Israelis fails and Omar is captured again. Rami offers Omar one last chance to help the Israelis kill or imprison Tarek. Free again, Omar finds that everyone regards him with suspicion; even Nadia thinks he’s a spy. Omar confronts Amjad, who he thinks is truly the double agent.
Much more happens in this complex thriller. The ultimate fates of Omar, Rami, Nadia, Tarek and Amjad are rendered in a satisfying way by Abu-Assad, who has created a plot worthy of the classic film noirs of the ‘40s and ‘50s.
Hany Abu-Assad isn’t a particularly stylish director. He eschews dramatic lighting and oblique camera angles. What he does do is get straight to the core of his complicated plots and intriguing characters. His unfussy, direct gaze allows his actors to appear absolutely authentic in their roles even when things are going spectacularly awry.
Though Abu-Assad’s plot is convoluted, the real drama centres on Omar’s relationship to two people, his beloved Nadia and his Israeli agent Rami. In both cases, he misreads those closest to him, deciding incorrectly what they are capable of doing. And that can only lead to tragedy.
Ultimately, Omar is a set of character studies. Rising to the occasion, as fine actors are wont to do, is Waleed Zuaiter, who offers a nuanced performance as the calculating Israeli agent Rami. Good in a more limited way is Leem Lubany as Nadia; she shows us the charming appeal of her character but her performance doesn’t suggest much depth or passion. As Omar, Adam Bakri looks great and has the fine physical presence of a leading man. He doesn’t take us on his character’s internal journey but that might have suited Abu-Assad, who needs to keep enough things obscure so that he can give us a somewhat surprising ending.
Is Omar worth seeing? Absolutely.
Will it win the best foreign film Oscar? Stay tuned for next week when I offer the rest of my predictions—but I’m happy to offer my opinion right now. The winner will be The Great Beauty, not Omar.