You shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, and the same rules often apply to movie posters. One glance at the poster for Philomena, with its treacly-funny, Odd Couple implications, and cineastes wouldn’t be blamed for running for the hills, not expecting the morally complex, plausible and genuinely touching movie that exists beyond the marketing pander.
Ditto to the misleading American poster for the recent Oscar nominee Omar, which opens March 14 at the Broadway. It’s an extreme close-up of an attractive young Palestinian couple locking lips underneath an undoubtedly out-of-context blurb from the Los Angeles Times’ Betsy Sharkey lauding the film’s “Incredible Love Story!”
The intention may be to mislead Nicholas Sparks fans into the art-house ghetto, but don’t fall under that spell. Omar may be, somewhat, a love story, but it’s certainly not a romance. It’s more like a Shakespearean tragedy filmed by the Arab world’s answer to Martin Scorsese—a brutally violent and high-energy crime thriller about the perils of revolution.
The title character, played by Adam Bakri, is one of a cell of three Palestinian youths revolting against the Israeli occupation. But he’d rather spend his days with Nadia (Leem Lubany), his beloved, who lives on the Israeli side of the West Bank Wall—in a sense the Capulet to his Montague. When he is caught scaling the wall and then abused by a cadre of malicious Israeli border guides, he and his “freedom fighters” launch a sniper attack that leads to the death of an Israeli soldier. This creates a domino effect that dictates the rest of the film’s narrative, with Omar captured and forced to either collaborate with the occupiers or continue a battle that looks scarcely worth fighting as the lines between “friend” and “enemy” blur. The film becomes a succession of cautious alliances, deceptions and betrayals, perceived or otherwise, that leaves plenty of bodies in its wake.
Remarkably, director Hany Abu-Assad said he developed the serpentine story structure in just four hours and wrote the script in four days. Certainly, the film oozes inspiration and personality. In dramatizing the lives of revolutionaries, Abu-Assad creates an atmosphere of perpetual—and justified—paranoia on the sepia streets of the modern-day Palestinian territories, a world in which danger is instantaneous and escape routes must always be explored. The movie is most thrilling when it hits those streets, and the director’s fluid camera tracks Omar eluding his captors through alleys and backyards, markets and rooftops. He’s a rat in a familiar maze, and he knows all the ways out—at least until every possible exit is blocked.
I’m sure that Omar has faced its share of pro-Zionist backlash toward a film that has the audacity to explain and sympathize with the unrest and, yes, the terror that foments on the other side of the Wall (What’s that saying about “one man’s freedom fighter?”) It’s one thing to hear about this conflict from a didactic, liberal, well-meaninged Israeli director grasping at thin narrative strands of peace between these warring cultures to show the rest of the world that things might not be so bad. It’s another to hear it from a far more uncompromising Palestinian who views the conflict from a jaundiced but realist eye.
But it’s hard to argue against Abu-Assad humanism. None of his characters’ violence is glorified, and his lone recurring Israeli character is a police investigator who comes across as a forgiving family man. The dynamics of occupation and revolution cut across cultures, and as a cautionary tale, Omar questions the worth of taking any human life in a violent uprising, no matter where it is in the world. It achieves the balance many international filmmakers aim for—geographically specific and universally relatable.