Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Review: "Omar"

Director: Hany Abu-Assad
Runtime: 96 minutes

For a film featuring a love triangle, constant paranoia, and betrayal, Oscar-nominated Palestinian thriller Omar rarely grabs one's attention. Though competent enough on all fronts, Hany Abu-Assad's topical film is ultimately built on flimsy emotional and psychological foundations. Rather than sink its hooks in and then dig deep, Omar is barely capable of poking beneath the surface once all of the narrative elements are established.

The end result is particularly disappointing because of the effortlessly handled opening act. Despite the gunshots and police abuse, watching young rebel Omar (Adam Bakri) sneak around Jerusalem hammers home the banality of the setting's violence and chaos. Watching military police taunt Omar by forcing him to stand on a rock for hours is only moderately tense as cinema, which somehow becomes unnerving in retrospect. These instances are eerily common place, and even expected. The near misses with the police are woven into Omar's life as if they're simply part of his daily schedule. 

Yet these establishing scenes, which also introduce love interest Nadia (Leem Lubany), and Omar's rebel comrades Tarek (Iyad Hoorani) and Amjad (Samer Bisharat), aren't given enough meat to support what follows. When Omar is roped into being an informant for Israeli authorities, the film seems ready to truly take off from a narrative standpoint. Instead, it starts to unravel. 

The most troubling thing about Omar's main plot is how little the film touches on Omar's psychological dilemma. Yes, he'll have to make choices about what he does or doesn't reveal, but Abu-Assad's thin screenplay allows for little room for the stakes to really settle (outside of the obvious). On the surface, we can see what Omar stands to lose, but the pacing just keeps clipping along, never bothering to dwell too much. Ironically, the somewhat nimble pace ends up working against the thriller elements of the story. After a point, Omar becomes mildly frustrating, as it goes through the motions. Only when the physical movement is at its height, as in a pair of dynamic on-foot chases, does Abu-Assad's approach actually connect. 

The glimpses of actual humanity, meanwhile, are often swept aside. That doesn't mean that certain moments don't register, however. A scene where Omar and Israeli agent Rami (Waleed Zuaiter) share a laugh over the latter's wife and mother hints at what Omar could have been. There's actual complexity there: for all of the fear and manipulation, two diametrically opposed individuals can still bond over a simple, human moment, even as they're surrounded by conflicting circumstances. At the very least, a deep examination of this would have acted as a counterweight to the bloodless love triangle entanglement that arrives at the midway point. 

Even the writer/director's protagonist becomes partly culpable in the film's noble failure. Handsome though he may be, Bakri can't manage to project his internal turmoil. This single change would likely have upped the film's quality by quite a margin. Though the actor emotes effectively, never straining for show-off moments, there's a lack of true complexity. Rather than find ways of showing Omar's stressful situation, Abu-Assad and Bakri leave the make-up and fake blood to show us the damage. It's all about appearances with Omar, and sadly nothing more. 

Grade: C

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