Despite mild didacticism, Omar is a quality thriller with compelling central characters.
The first shot, a long take in which Omar (Adam Bakri) climbs an Israeli security wall, sets tone and foreshadows future events. The wall is massive, but our protagonist effortlessly climbs it, only to have someone unseen try to shoot him, forcing him to scramble for survival.
It is one of the best openings of 2013.
Writer/director Hany Abu-Assad’s artistic choices are adept throughout. He marks passage of time with skilled subtlety.
He uses point of view, over the shoulder, close up, and other camera angles to admirably tell the story from Omar’s perspective.
Chase scenes are expertly filmed with a combination of tight and wide angles. Plus, they serve as narrative transitions.
When characters, especially Omar, are most confused or scared, angles are closer, framing faces or objects in disorienting close-ups, some of which are even more unsettling thanks to blurry outside borders.
Partially due to skillful editing, romance scenes between Omar and Nadia (Leem Lubany) are fittingly playful but still nerve-racking.
In fact, the list of Abu-Assad’s strong directorial choices would be lengthy, if I tried to complete it.
It would surely include his casting decisions. In an understated performance, Adam Bakri captures Omar’s charisma and intelligence just as well as the character’s self-destructive idealism.
Leem Lubany is enchanting, leaving us entirely bewildered; is Nadia as wonderful as Omar thinks she is, or is she manipulating the men in her life, as Abu-Assad’s screenplay hints she might be? Both the actor and writer convince us that either interpretation is plausible.
Other actors are equally good. Waleed F. Zuaiter (Agent Rami) is as menacing as he is calming, and Samer Bisharat (Amjad) and Eyad Hourani (Tarek) redeem themselves, too.
As importantly, all of the featured characters are complex enough to make us care about them.
But despite strong directorial choices, great performances, and well-developed characters, Omar is not perfect.
First, Abu-Hassad under-explains Tarek, Amjad and Omar’s participation in Palestinian resistance to Israeli occupation. At first, the three seem to be impulsive youngsters playing at war, out on their own, unaffiliated with any particular group. Only later do we learn that they are members of a larger network, of which Tarek may or may not be a leader.
More problematically, Omar portrays Israelis too negatively. At one point, for example, a small group of soldiers senselessly taunt the protagonist. Later, he is tortured.
Then there’s Rami, the most sympathetic Israeli character, who still entraps, blackmails and exploits Palestinians. Yes, it is in the name of doing his job, at which he is uniquely skilled, but even still, it isn’t noble behavior.
To a large extent, this latter flaw is mitigated by story-telling technique. Since we see the narrative from Omar’s point-of-view, and since Omar isn’t objective, either is the film.
But Abu-Hassad’s picture remains so one-sided that it resonates with less thematic truth than it otherwise might have.
Which isn’t to say that Omar is ineffective.
Between directing, acting and writing, there is much to like here, far more than there is to dislike.