OmarReviewed By Jay Seaver
Posted 03/18/14 13:45:00
"Omar" starts with its title character scaling a wall to travel between two Palestinian areas of Jerusalem, and while I don't know the exact rationale for that arrangement, a spy movie can do a heck of a lot with a wall like that. In fact, it might be tempted to do everything it can, crushing the story under more symbolism that it can really handle. This one, fortunately, knows the story it wants to tell and doesn't miss a beat with it.Omar (Adam Bakri) is climbing that wall to meet with Tarek (Iyad Hoorani), a lifelong friend who is active in the Jerusalem brigades, with Omar and their other friend Amjad (Samer Bisharat) under his command; a chance to see Tarek's cute sister Nadia (Leem Lubany) is just a bonus. And while their operation is something of a success, it doesn't take the Israelis long to track them down and capture Omar. An agent by the name of Rami (Waleed Zuaiter) offers him freedom for delivering Tarek, but Omar is not about to simply roll over and do what Rami demands.
The basic plot of Omar is that of a spy movie, but because of the way geography and politics are set up in the West Bank, it in many ways has the feel of cops trying to develop sources inside the mob, and I suppose that from inside, which type of situation is the proper analogy depends on which side one is on. Writer/director Hany Abu-Assad takes how close walls are in this situation and takes great advantage of it, highlighting how, to a certain extent, cloak-and-dagger is part of everyday life in Palestine, from the dead-serious but almost comical amount of feelers Omar receives from various groups when his in prison to the way that courting involves sneaking over walls and exchanging notes like they were state secrets. This is how he finds new and exciting ways of tightening the screws toward the end, when many other filmmakers might have settled for the solution to the mystery that the movie is pointing to or just acknowledge that, in a city claimed by two groups, there's never any getting out.
Even without the taking things to a different level towards the end, Abu-Assad has built a tense thriller. He leaves just enough doubt as to whether Omar has started to work with the Israelis to keep things interesting, keeps the focus tight on the main set of characters but has enough other things going on to send the story off in new directions. The movie is set up like a puzzle, but the environment is always taken seriously enough that it's no abstract game of spy-versus-spy, with Omar's Jerusalem presented as a place where paranoia and ordinary domesticity exist hand in hand.
Adam Bakri makes for a charismatic lead; he's young, handsome, and able to project the confidence that goes with that without becoming abrasive. He's good at putting on a face that says he's going to double-cross these guys at the first opportunity or otherwise swallowing something distasteful, too, something which comes in handy. The other young members of the cast are quite good as well, with Iyad Hoorani starting from about the same template as Bakri but emphasizing a cool head a bit more; the cold-bloodedness necessary to be a field leader in this sort of organization may not be his defining characteristic, but it's there. Samer Bisharat is the runt of the group, and also the funny one, able to deliver snappy wisecracks at the start which are a sign off the generally good timing he'll need later on. Leem Lubany is the sunniest part of the movie as Nadia, but she his the right note where her teenage infatuation with Omar doesn't seem out of place even with the dead-serious thrust of the story, and also gets a chance to shine with different sorts of material later on. Waleed Zuaiter is the veteran member of the cast, making for a quite capable antagonist - apparently even better if one recognizes the differences between Hebrew and Arabic and the various local accents.
That emphasis on local color helps to make Omar an exciting movie, too; Abu-Assad makes sure his characters have a life other than fighting the occupation (I love Omar's cat and his soccer-fan little sister) even as the reality of those circumstances mean that violence can explode at almost any second. Not only is the action well-staged, but it always seems to reflect the story in microcosm: Omar must run through a lot of tight spaces and balance carefully on rooftops, and one he's positioned as an informer, it's the seemingly friendly open spaces that can be the most dangerous. And then there's that wall separating him from his friends, which he just can't climb any more at a certain point.That may sound like a movie that's a bit heavy on the symbolism, but "Omar" carries that load very well. It's an effective slow-burn thriller made all the more interesting by its particular setting and the youth of its characters, a great spy movie even if it doesn't fit the usual mode.
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