Director: Hany Abu-Assad
Starring: Adam Bakri, Iyad Hoorani, Leem Lubany, Samer Bisharat
Running time: 98 mins
Release Date: Jun 5, 2014
Is it any good? ★★★★★
A highlight of last year’s Melbourne International Film Festival, writer/director Hany Abu-Assad’s Omar is a finely honed dramatic thriller with a seething undercurrent of love, revenge and betrayal in occupied Palestine. It scooped the Special Jury Prize in the Un Certain Regard category at the 2013 Cannes Film Festival and was nominated for a Best Foreign Language Oscar earlier this year, and it’s not hard to figure out why.
Dashing Adam Bakri’s debut feature, he puts in a quietly magnificent performance that so often reveals far more in the twitch of his mouth or the longing hurt in gleaming eyes than is ever spoken by his taciturn character. He plays the young baker of the title who is forced to use ropes to scale the vast, graffiti-daubed concrete walls that ring his neighbourhood in order to visit Nadia (Leem Lubany) the girl he hopes to marry one day and sister of his best friend Tarek, played by Iyad Hoorani.
The frustration of their existence in the West Bank, under the shadow of the Israeli-Palestine conflict, mocked by soldiers and with their every move watched by snipers on the wall, palpably bubbles over into aggression. Shortly after Omar is almost killed during his regular clambering across that great divide, he, Tarek and fellow childhood buddy Amjad (Samer Bisharat) decide to take matters into their own hands and plot a sniper attack of their own.
This act of vengeance unleashes an ever-escalating series of events resulting in Omar’s imprisonment, where he is subjected to brutal torture at the hands of Israeli special agents who aim break him, both physically and mentally. These harrowing scenes of Omar hanging in chains, hood over his head and impenetrable darkness pierced by blinding interrogation lights are both devastating and surreally haunting. There’s an eerie beauty hidden under the horror that’s matched by cinematographer Ehab Assal’s capturing of the semi-ruined streets in which the men hide, with bright white billboards depicting two girls bearing a tree and the epithet, “Planting Hope. Social Responsibility.”
As out of place as this message seems amidst the desolation and the increasingly tragic turn of events, as Omar is pressed to turncoat on his mates, his resistance and the consequence of several shifting loyalties, there is, nonetheless, a shard of hope for a better future that prevents this compelling film from sliding into bleak pessimism, even as the young man’s options rapidly run out.
Sharing some similarities with last year’s Bethlehem, Omar is a more nuanced offering, paired back from Abu-Assad’s own Paradise Now (2006), a deeply divisive film depicting suicide bombers. With Omar he has delivered an incredibly powerful story in a lean 90 minutes, a commendable economy that should be a lesson to the ever-increasing number of directors who believe a film must run to two-hour plus to deliver emotional weight.
Omar is screening in selected Australian cinemas.