We’re just a couple of weeks away from this year’s Academy Awards, but one of the Best Foreign Language Film nominees is only now going on general release (to be eligible, films must screen publicly in Los Angeles County for a full week during the prior year but may open later elsewhere). That’s no reflection on the nominated film’s quality, however – and I’ll go out on a rather long limb and predict Oscar glory for Omar, a powerful Palestinian drama about life in the Occupied Territories opening at Landmark’s Shattuck Cinemas on Friday, Feb. 21.
Omar (Adam Bakri) is a typical young West Bank resident. Having grown up under the occupation he’s adapted to it in innumerable ways, including making a daily climb over the 26 foot-tall ‘security wall’ in order to visit friends and get to work. Despite the best efforts of Israeli Defense Force patrols to prevent such breaches, Omar scales the wall on a regular basis, sometimes with a boost from kindly passers-by.
The wall also separates Omar from girlfriend Nadia (Leem Lubany), a part-time seamstress who’s the sister of his close friend Tarek (Iyad Hoorani). Desperately trying to work up the gumption to ask for her hand in marriage, Omar fears Tarek and her family will reject him – but perhaps they’ll look more kindly on his proposal if the three-man resistance cell he, Tarek, and Marlon Brando impersonator Amjad (Robert Clary-lookalike Samer Bisharat) belong to can pull off something spectacular.
After an Israeli rifle-butt smashes Omar’s nose the trio are spurred into action, successfully assassinating an IDF soldier stationed at a nearby base. Despite immediately going into hiding, Omar is arrested in surprisingly short order, and the police seem strangely well informed regarding his part in the plot. Threatening him with a 90-year prison sentence, they offer him an alternative: collaborate and bring them Tarek’s head in exchange for freedom, a modicum of protection, and (presumably) a clearer path to Nadia’s heart.
Directed by Hany Abu-Assad (previously responsible for 2005’s excellent Paradise Now, also an Oscar nominee), Omar details the ensuing double and triple crossing, as our hero attempts to stay true to the Palestinian cause while somehow also delivering something of value to his Israeli controller (Sacramento-born Waleed Zuaiter, in a remarkable performance).
Abu-Assad’s film succeeds on multiple levels: as dramatic character study, as suspenseful cliffhanger (fans of the Assassin’s Creed series of video games will be especially impressed by some of the lead character’s near-Bondian acrobatics), as romance (Bakri and Lubany make for a delightful couple), and – most significantly — as tragedy. Omar’s fate seems sealed from the moment of his arrest, and though he lives to see the final reel, the film’s conclusion is far from a happy one.
For those concerned that Omar might be an apologia for ‘terrorism’, it’s not. The film depicts events with brutal honesty: there’s no doubt the cell kill a soldier in cold blood, and no doubt that Omar is tortured mentally and physically by his captors. There’s no flag-waving, no grandiose speeches, and no martyrdom videos: instead, the film is a matter of fact story of a seemingly irresolvable problem now so deeply engrained in Israeli/Palestinian life that murder, police brutality, and duplicity seem completely normal.
Berkeleyside’s film writer John Seal writes a weekly movie recommendation column at Box Office Prophets, as well as a column in The Phantom of the Movies’ Videoscope, an old-fashioned paper magazine, published quarterly.
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