Ideological violence in a troubled region.
A wronged man fights to clear his name. Is it a Hitchcock movie? A Western? No, it's the Oscar-nominated Omar, a really fine, claustrophobic thriller set in occupied Palestine.
The title character (Adam Bakri) is a humble young baker who leads a secret life as a resistance fighter. With his friends Tarek (Eyad Hourani) and Amjad (Samer Bisharat), Omar practices his sharpshooting skills and prepares for a deadly operation. He leads another secret life as a suitor of the seamstress Nadia (Leem Lubany), Tarek's brother. Omar and Nadia discreetly pass each other notes, like school kids, and grab private moments together when they can. At home, Omar dines with his family and plays with the cat. Most of the cast members are first-time film actors, and I like these honest performances. I especially admire the work of Bakri, whose handsome face bears fresh cuts and bruises, the scars of his ordeal.
Omar was written and directed by the Palestinian filmmaker Hany Abu-Assad, and it is unapologetically a genre movie. I like that about it. The characters are familiar from other thrillers: the strong, determined leading man; the beautiful young woman he loves; the weaselly compatriot who lacks nerve; the soft-spoken but brutally efficient interrogator (Waleed F. Zuaiter). There are betrayals, reverses, surprises. The action scenes are well executed, especially a series of exciting chases through maze-like streets and alleys. There are clichés of the thriller genre, including some awkward dialogue and the image of a man walking away, unflinching, from a giant explosion in the background.
The film also transcends its genre, the way good thrillers like The French Connection do. Omar is a focused, outraged statement on the Palestinian situation, and if you're looking for a balanced view, you won't find one here. Omar and his team believe in their cause. They believe they are justified in carrying out the sniper attack that leaves a soldier dead. That development occurs early on and sets in motion everything that follows, including Omar's imprisonment and torture. Looming over several scenes is the ugly isolation wall — which, Abu-Assad says in the press kit, is as much about separating Palestinians from Palestinians as it is about separating Palestinians from Israelis.
Omar achieves its potency by focusing pretty narrowly on character and plot. It doesn't telegraph its message, and this is instructive. Watching Omar, I thought, not very kindly, of the 2012 Mira Nair film The Reluctant Fundamentalist, likewise about ideological violence in a troubled region. Nair's film is also a thriller, but she combined action scenes with a sensitive story about immigration and religious identity. The results were a muddle. I prefer Abu-Assad's approach with Omar. He keeps his gripping story chugging along.