Review: “Omar” is a thrilling, noir-esque character study on Israeli-Palestinian conflict


“Omar” did not win the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film, but it is quite interesting. I gave it three stars for the Buffalo News.

“Omar” did not win the Oscar for best foreign language film last weekend, and that is no shocker. As anyone who has seen the majestic Italian entry “The Great Beauty” can attest, topping that deliriously colorful film was not going to be easy.

Still, Hany Abu-Assad’s film was a worthy nominee, a smart, thrilling character study that tackles the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict in a film-noir-infused manner that feels fresh and insightful.

The film opens with its protagonist, a young Palestinian named Omar (Adam Bakri), standing by the mighty, graffiti-strewn wall separating him from his girlfriend, Nadja (Leem Lubany). The wall is omnipresent, a reality of daily life, and so is Omar’s method of circumventing it.

Omar, Nadja and her brother Tarek (Eyad Hourani) are portrayed as relatively normal young people. They tell sex jokes, do Brando impressions, reference Brad Pitt.

But Omar, Tarek and company also practice shooting rifles, call themselves “freedom fighters,” and become enmeshed in acts of violence. In one case, an Israeli soldier is killed, and Omar is arrested.

Within minutes (onscreen), Omar is dangling naked as an Agent Rami (Waleed Zuaiter), questions him, surprising the young man with intimate details about his life and offering a deal: Work for us. If not, Omar faces 90 years in prison.

From this moment forward, “Omar” becomes a noir-esque tapestry of secrets and lies, as the title character faces rumors of being a traitor, prepares for an ambush with his friends, and navigates an increasingly paranoid landscape. Paranoia is the key word. There is rarely a relaxed moment in the film.

“Omar” screened in the Un Certain Regard section at Cannes last spring, receiving the Jury Prize, and has since drawn raves at other film festivals. It is the latest film from acclaimed Palestinian director Hany Abu-Assad, whose great 2005 drama “Paradise Now” earned an Oscar nomination and a Golden Globe award.

“Paradise,” a story of Palestinian suicide bombers, was greeted with both praise and controversy. For the subject matter and setting of “Omar,” a response mixing acclaim and debate was an inevitability.

Abu-Assad’s portrayal of the Israeli military and intelligence figures is certainly unflattering. Only Agent Rami is presented as anything less than a monster; one of the film’s moments of humor comes when he must pause during an intense discussion to chat on the phone about who will pick his daughter up from day care.

How one feels about Abu-Assad’s approach, and about Omar will have a lot to do with how satisfying one finds the ending. It is punchy and surprising, but not as emotionally powerful as, say, last year’s terrorism tale “The Attack.”

What is undeniable is that the director has crafted a gripping, suspenseful film that has a sense of reality and consequence lacking from most thrillers. It is rooted in politics, but is more focused on the morality of being an informant, and what it means to be considered a traitor.

Indeed, we are deep in noir territory. The story could have been the basis for a picture shot on the Warner Bros. lot decades ago. Even the film’s quasi-twist ending would have felt at home, and it’s a testament to Abu-Assad’s talent that he makes these tropes feel original.