There are two issues - two inseparable issues - at stake when looking at Palestinian director Hany Abu-Assad's Omar and, more widely, at any film that takes as its background the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The first: is its tale specific to Israel and Palestine or could it take place anywhere else in the world? The answer, here, is that the basic plot of Omar isn't specifically Palestinian and could, in fact, be a Scorsese mob movie or a Parisian underworld thriller. Three childhood friends (Adam Bakri as the titular character, Samer Basharat and Eyad Hourani) are split apart by the demands of their chosen activities, while two of them (Messrs. Bakri and Basharat) are secretly in love with the sister (Leem Lubany) of the third, who also happens to be the designated "leader of the pack".
What Mr. Abu-Assad has clearly tried to create here is a genre movie, a thriller where the hero finds himself tangled in a web of continuous deceit and must find his way out without knowing whom should he trust. That this cross-and-double-cross takes place within the highly charged pressure cooker of the West Bank gives it added tension, feeding into existentialist questions of devotion and betrayal. It feeds as well into the second issue at stake: can Omar be seen as just a film, can it transcend being seen as a political statement?
Mr. Abu-Assad had achieved it in his acclaimed Paradise, Now! by doubling down and making that political statement his entire subject, but here, despite his protestations of not wanting Omar to be a political film, he really can't avoid it. The dramatic construction of his basic genre movie plot in the first third of the film is so by-the-numbers and predictable that it all but looks like a fragile scaffold erected purposely to advertise a message. The infamous barrier that bisects the Palestinian Territories, and serves as the film's key visual metaphor, becomes an ever-present obstacle that separates Omar from his dreams, but also a jump too high for the film's distinctly feet-on-the-ground feel; by the time the film finally gets into gear and starts a smart, looping questioning of truth and trust in an area where war is a daily, permanent state, the very basic scaffold isn't strong enough to support it.
It's to Mr. Abu-Assad's credit that Omar gets better, more engrossing and more layered as it moves forward, but that initial half hour is so half-hearted that it throws off the film into the exact opposite of what the director meant. And it's a pity he didn't succeed here; we need more voices like Mr. Abu-Assad's, more interested in telling a story in its complexity and opening our eyes to important questions in different ways. There's really nothing much different in Omar to hold your attention.
Palestine, USA, United Arab Emirates 2013
Cast Adam Bakri, Leem Lubany, Waleed F. Zuaiter, Samer Bisharat, Eyad Hourani
Director and screenwriter Hany Abu-Assad; cinematographer Ehab Assal (colour, widescreen); designer Nael Kanj (and Yoel Herzberg for the prison scenes); costumes Hamada Atallah; editors Martin Brinkler and Eyas Salman; producers Mr. Abu-Assad, Mr. Zuaiter and David Gerson, ZBros in co-production with Dubai Entertainment and Media Organisation in association with Enjaaz
Screened July 18th 2014, Lisbon (DVD screener)