Walking out of Omar at CIFF 2013, I didn’t think for a second that the Palestinian film had the potential to be an Oscar contender. Overall, the film worked for me. But not very well, I must add. It was engaging, eventful, evenly paced, and cleverly plotted. However, it fails to entice, enthral or reward the viewer emotionally.
Omar is part-time baker, full-time revolutionary. He scales Israel-Palestine boundary walls every other day and almost gets shot. But Omar treats it like just another day at the office. He belongs to a rebellion that wants to take on armed forces and evict them out of the country despite being vastly outnumbered. They consider themselves freedom fighters, going as far as ambushing soldiers from a distance. But we never see what Omar gets from all of this. His ideological stance on the war or people around him remains unknown. All we know is that he belongs to a rebellion that provides him a sense of group identity. Apparently, that is all it takes for Omar to risk his life everyday and eventually go to war. Film-maker Hany Abu Assad doesn’t believe he needs to show us what motivates Omar to live this daredevil life. That Omar lives it stone-faced further confounds the viewer. He acts as if he has nothing to lose, when in fact he’s shown to share a strong bond with his ever-smiling naivete lover Nadia.
Omar is torn between wanting to be a teen drama and a political thriller. Abu-Assad gives the relationships considerably more depth than the plot, but he seems more focused on the proceedings. Even when a shabak attempts to work Omar up (going as far as lighting his balls on fire), he clams up revealing nothing. They release him temporarily, on the condition that he rat on his friends and their plans. He agrees, on impulse, without ever intending to. He doesn’t even contemplate the idea. And this happens a few times in the course of the film. Yet Omar doesn’t hatch up a plan. He is clearly someone who doesn’t possess long-term thinking. I wish Abu-Assad had shown us more of Omar contemplating, weighing his options and the moral dilemma associated with these choiceless choices.
The plot twists unfold interestingly but neither the viewer nor Omar is able to feel the affect of these events. There’re shootouts that end with people getting killed. Omar even gets tortured repeatedly. With so much drama and violence here, we must feel to some extent the gravity of these events. But Abu-Assad wraps them up in a jiffy without letting the effects linger. As if he was merely reporting them. And all the viewer can do is nod in acknowledgement.
While I did warm well to the investigative nature of the narrative, I just found the film wavering in its intentions. Abu-Assad’s rendition of his own script is too formal for its own good. We’re kept at bay and feel left behind in Omar’s journey. Perhaps, he should’ve let us capture the vital moments here; thrown in more close-ups here and there, allowing us stop and stare at Omar in the face of all this adversity. But Abu-Assad keeps the film going at a steady pace and the viewer has to make do with simply observing Omar from a distance. However, this approach isn’t entirely at fault. It keeps the film on the move, and we remain interested in the film’s events despite being uninvested in them.
Towards the end, when some unhinging truths come to the fore, Omar shows some anger, and a little more frustration, when he should’ve probably been devastated. One would expect him to feel as if the carpet was pulled from underneath his feet. Each act of betrayal here fails to conjure up a worthy emotional response from both Omar and the viewer. I’m not sure if it’s the one-note performance of Adam Bakhri that’s to be blamed here. Omar unintentionally comes off as an emotionally handicapped human being. But, then again, perhaps it’s Abu-Assad’s preference for plot details over everything else at fault.
If only these plot details were fool-proof would Omar have had enough going for it, but sadly this isn’t the case here. In a last-ditch effort to win over the audience and make us empathize with Omar (who, by now, has been painted as an altruistic martyr), the director springs us with a twist that challenges everything we know thus far. And this does provoke a good deal of pondering as you put the pieces of the puzzle together. You retrace Omar’s steps in the plot and investigate the details. But if you ponder enough, you’ll see that the final twist fails to hold the film upright; it only opens up plot holes that didn’t previously exist.
So, Amjad was playing both the shabak and Omar by lying to both of them about a non-existent pregnancy just so that he could marry Nadia? Is this the prime concern for a guy whose life is suspended by a thin thread? Amjad, initially established the funny guy of the gang, is suddenly devious and scheming. However, he appears quite helpless and lacking in any foresight when threatened first, by Omar and later, by Tarek. This behaviour is inconsistent with his character, which has taken unexpected turns by now.
Or was Amjad collaborating with the shabak? If that was the case, this whole plan of theirs worked only because Nadia and Omar refused to talk to each other, at different times for different reasons. What’re the odds of that? Did they count entirely on this rather improbable possibility? Their sloppy plan working out for them is too incidental and fails to ring true. This added contrivance only entangles Omar’s clever plot within itself.