Another Oscar-nominated film comes to Asheville this Friday with Hany Abu-Assad’s Omar, a striking — and very good — thriller with political underpinnings. (Though Abu-Assad keeps insisting that he isn’t a political filmmaker.) Some of you may know the filmmaker for his (also Oscar-nominated) 2005 film Paradise Now. I think it only played a week locally, and I only saw it once, but the experience of the showing I saw is indelible. When the film came to its inevitable but shattering conclusion, no one applauded. No one said a word. In fact, no one moved. We just sat there in silence through the credits, and then quietly filed out of the theater. I think that ending and that experience work against Omar attaining the power of the earlier film for me. Omar goes for a similar ending — sudden, shocking, yet inescapably how it must end. The difference is that here I knew what Abu-Assad was up to well before it happened, which blunted the effect a good bit. It’s still powerful, but not paralyzingly so. If you’ve never seen the earlier film, you may well have a stronger reaction.
Omar is not dissimilar to Paradise Now in that both films are about the Palestinian resistance. However, Omar is more audience-friendly in that its main characters are not suicide bombers. They do qualify as terrorists, though, even if they view themselves as freedom fighters. But like the characters in Paradise Now, they’re not especially bright. What possible blow against the Israeli occupation they hope to accomplish by killing one random soldier is never made clear — probably because the characters themselves don’t have a clue. The plan — right down to implicating each of the three so that no one isn’t a participant — is childish in the extreme and underscored by motives that have nothing to do with any kind of “freedom fighting.” The most committed of the three, Tarek (Iyad Hoorani), seems to be the leader just because he enjoys being in charge of his younger friends. On the other hand, both Omar (Adam Bakri) and Amjad (Samer Bisharat) want to impress Tarek so that he’ll be receptive to the idea of them as candidates for marrying his sister, Nadia (Leem Lubany).
Not surprisingly, things do not go to plan. Oh, they manage their “assassination,” but it doesn’t take long for Omar to get tagged with the crime, imprisoned and tricked into what is accepted as a confession. But the Israeli forces only want this confession as a bargaining chip for Omar to be forced into handing them the others. Faced with life in prison as an alternative, Omar agrees, while hoping to find a way out. What he hasn’t reckoned on is that it has become impossible to know who to trust or, in fact, if anybody can be trusted. The truth is that in this world, no one can be believed. No one’s motives are ever obvious, and promises mean nothing.
Its political content has little to do with the film’s success. Instead, it’s the combination of the love story between Omar and Nadia and the thriller approach Abu-Assad takes with the material. The love story is startlingly sweet and straightforward, yet undercut at every turn by the improbability of a happy ending — regardless of how many billboards in the film suggest otherwise. As a thriller, Omar is quite on a par with the slickest action suspense film, and its twists and turns keep it compelling on a pure entertainment level. If it falls short compared to Paradise Now in terms of audience devastation, it perhaps makes up for it as a brilliantly achieved piece of filmmaking. Not Rated, but contains adult themes and violence.
Playing at Fine Arts Theatre.