Back when I saw the foreign drama Omar at the most recent New York Film Festival, it was nothing more than Palestine’s submission for Best Foreign Language Feature, and a long shot at that. A few months later and it wound up with an Oscar nomination in the category. Why? Well, because it was good enough to entice voters, simply put. Omar is a compelling film from filmmaker Hany Abu-Assad, the man who brought us the powerful Paradise Lost a few years back. This time around, he’s got a new film that is a drama that I’d argue isn’t quite as good as his last one but still is well worth your time. It’s not the sort of movie that’s likely to win the Academy Award, but considering the lineup, it’s well deserving of the nomination. Abu-Assad, along with his leading man Adam Bakri, deliver a mostly compelling flick that is always able to overcome its slower moments. That being said, the pacing could be a little bit better than it was, but that’s just the difference between it being a good film and a very good one. I wasn’t disappointed by it back at NYFF and now with the Oscars right around the corner, it’s hitting theaters and I think you won’t be disappointed either.
The film takes place in one of the occupied territories that the Israeli/Palestinian conflict is obviously centered around. Climbing over a separation wall to get to his various destinations is just a normal event in the daily life of our protagonist/title character Omar (Bakri), though once in a while he has to dodge a bullet or deal with the military getting in his face/harassing him. He’s deeply in love with Nadja (Leem Lubany), the little sister of his close friend Tarek (Eyad Hourani). Along with another friend of his named Amjad (Samer Bisharat), the slowly radicalized friends concoct a plan to kill an Israeli soldier. Between casual hang outs, they practice shooting a rifle from a distance in order to assure that their mission will succeed. They don’t have too good a reason for this, but they feel it’s somehow necessary and before long they accomplish this goal, though not without some nerves acting up at the last minute. Israel is quick to react though, resulting in Omar being arrested and interrogated. They want him to turn in Tarek, the one they think planned it. Things only get worse for Omar from there, though it’s best not to say too much about what happens. Things are a bit slower than they could be, but more often than not the slow burn is effective.
A movie like this needs actors and actresses that draw you in, or else boredom is likely to set in, to be frank. Thankfully, the performances from the cast are very solid all around, though most notably from Adam Bakri and Leem Lubany. Bakri is our through line in the film and he needed to deliver a strong performance in order to keep us from fading, so luckily for us he was up to the task. The other cast members like Eyad Hourani, Samer Bisharat, and the aforementioned Lubany especially make their marks with smaller roles, though no less important ones. The rest of the cast includes the likes of Iyad Hoorani and others, but it’s really Bakri that’s the notable one. He helps sell this movie, plain and simple. Without his low key yet essential work, I’m not sure that this would have been a flick that I would have recommended. That being said, Bakri and his cast members are on hand, so it’s a moot point.
Hany Abu-Assad can’t quite match his previous work in Paradise Now here, but he hardly makes a fool of himself either. The direction by Abu-Assad in particular is crystal clear and very effective. The script that Abu-Assad came up with isn’t the most original in the world however, but it definitely gets the job done in this movie, so it’s not a big deal. My main issue is the pacing, which gets too slack at times. Obviously the film is pretty political, but not so much so that the Academy will shy away from it in any way. They likely won’t pick this as the winner, but it won’t have anything to do with politics, which I’m always pleased about. Movies should live or die based on their own merit, plain and simple.
Omar isn’t what you would call an especially “enjoyable” film, but it’s well made and compelling enough from start to finish to recommend. It never gets into that special next gear that puts a movie above and beyond, but it’s a quality title from back at last year’s New York Film Festival that I’m very glad that I saw, especially considering that it got that nomination. Give Omar a shot, especially if you’re an Oscar completist…
–Thoughts? Discuss in the comments!