In 1999, director Hany Abu-Assad began writing the screenplay for his intimate, devastating humanization of suicide bombers, Paradise Now. Six years later, Paradise Now became the first Palestinian film to be nominated for an Oscar, after at least one earlier film had been deemed ineligible due to Palestine’s disputed status as a sovereign state. Israeli officials pressured the Academy to avoid officially acknowledging the state of Palestine during the ceremony, and Paradise Now was eventually presented as an entry from “The Palestinian Territories” (it’s still credited as such in the Official Academy Awards Database.) The controversy revealed as much about Hollywood’s ingrained biases as it did about a burgeoning Palestinian film industry and the particular human stories it would tell.
Now Abu-Assad brings us Omar, a tightly wound story that seems to have been an easier pill for the Academy to swallow, earning the film an unqualified Oscar nomination. Like Paradise Now, Omar is concerned with the conditions that would lead a person to perpetrate an act of unprovoked violence, but it explains those circumstances with an increased level of stylization. Omar (played by Adam Bakri) is a young baker living in the Occupied Territories, who is blocked from both his friends and meaningful political organization by Israeli-enforced neighborhood divisions. In order to see his girlfriend, Nadia (Leem Lubany), Omar must scale one of many towering walls, relying on his athleticism and knowledge of the city’s narrow network of alleys to lose any tailing soldiers. From the moment we see Omar drop down from the wall and take off running, the film takes on a breathless, claustrophobic tone, and as Omar’s story unfolds, Abu-Assad uses that style both to exhilarate and to exhaust.
Omar’s difficulties truly begin when he and his two friends Tarek (Iyad Hoorani) and Amjad (Samer Bisharat) decide to kill an Israeli soldier as an act of resistance. Things go awry after the crime is committed, and Omar ends up in jail with a recorded confession hanging over his head. As long as the Occupation continues, his lawyer explains, nothing can be done for him. And so Omar finds himself working for Rami, an Israeli agent who, we learn, has a family and a life outside of work, but nevertheless manipulates Omar with eerie, puppetmaster-like detachment. For the rest of the film, Omar, now released in order to ensnare his friend Tarek, struggles not to betray his ideals while dealing with suspicion from his community.
Omar is essentially a tense political drama, but it doesn’t shy away from either brutality or emotion. One incredible scene shows Omar struggling to climb the wall one last time. When he falls, an elderly man who happens to be passing by rushes to his aid, helping Omar up and supporting him as he grapples with the rope that leads to the other side. But then there are also elements that take you out of the film entirely. Abu-Assad’s style has gotten much flashier since Paradise Now, and Bakri is also movie star-handsome to the point that it’s hard to see Omar as an everyman rather than a physically privileged young actor.
To some degree, the success of Omar as entertainment depends on its central romance. Our investment in Omar’s success and well-being stems from an idealized portrait of Nadia, who at times seems impossibly young, and her near-total separation from the corrupt world that Omar, Agent Rami, and the rest of the men occupy. Maybe the most tragic aspect of Omar’s downfall is that his compartmentalization of life’s challenges, which keeps Nadia at arm’s length, turns out to be so hopelessly misguided. His devotion makes it easy for the Israeli agent to manipulate him, but he never tells Nadia what he’s truly involved in, and as a result he ultimately loses her. I have some issues with Abu-Assad’s portrayal of Nadia — in interviews, he’s stated that the film is about love above all else. But Nadia is little more than a catalyst for the film’s events. In her most important scenes, she’s a blank slate, a mirror that reflects back Omar’s many fears and suspicions.
I don’t agree that Omar is primarily a love story. If it were, it wouldn’t be as interesting or as brutally sad. But the romantic subplot makes Omar’s desire for a normal life more potent for the audience. It’s an understandable tactic for a filmmaker dealing with widely accepted prejudices to take. And as that part of the plot unfolds, Abu-Assad is subtly describing the complex ways that living in a hyper-controlled state occupied by military forces destroys the basic building blocks of relationships, both romantic and otherwise.
But as well-executed as Omar often is, it doesn’t have the resolute grimness that made Paradise Now exceptional. Instead, it indulges in melodrama to explain its characters’ struggles. It makes you wonder whether, as the Academy has grown more accepting of Abu-Assad, he hasn’t accepted a bit of their orthodoxy as well. Late in the film, Nadia speaks to the overwhelming nature of the forces that make decisions for these characters and funnel them into static, powerless positions. “Life became bigger than me,” she says. But even as the injustices depicted in Omar overwhelm its characters, the film only goes so far towards helping the audience live alongside them. For better or worse, Omar reminds you that life is bigger than what you’re watching, too.