My top pick this week is Hany Abu-Assad's "Omar". This caught my attention as an Oscar nominee for Best Foreign Language Film, marking Palestine's 2nd nomination in the category. Its central topic is the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, bringing with it a story of romance, suspense and intrigue.
"Omar" is the story of a young Palestinian man (the title character) caught up in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. He and his two close friends are freedom fighters employing their own makeshift guerilla tactics to retaliate against the Israeli forces. During one eventful mission they successfully shoot down an Israeli soldier, raising many suspicions. The next day, Omar is captured during a seemingly routine chase and questioned about the incident. After a period of brutal torture and questioning, he is given an ultimatum - confess and become a secret informant against his companions or face life imprisonment. Caught between a rock and a hard place, he must make the crucial decision between preserving his future but betraying his people, or facing possible death for not cooperating.
The premise sets up a thrilling movie full of action and suspense. Clocking in at a neat 96 minutes, it gets right to the point. With its quick edits and polished cinematography, it could be easily mistaken for an action thriller in the vein of The Bourne trilogy. In fact, it seems less concerned with the psychology of this war and more with providing good old Hollywood entertainment. Thankfully then, their lead actor Adam Bakri has movie star charisma to spare, coupled with the impressive agility of a true action hero. He scales the separation wall with ease, dodging all the bad guys like a champ. If there was any doubt as to which side you should be rooting for, then Omar would quickly eliminate it.
As is the custom of these types of thrillers, Omar's actions aren't motivated only by his personal political philosophy. There must be a romantic element mixed in. Such is the case, as his love for the beautiful Nadia (sister of one of his friends) ends up being a key factor in his decision-making. His Israeli captors use her as blackmail, while their relationship contemplates many aspects of his daily life.
It all boils down to a plot that is enjoyable and accessible, albeit disappointingly familiar. There's a fascinating discourse to be had given the complexity of Omar's predicament, but this is subdued by a constant focus on the violence and the love story. With such dire actions and consequences involved, it lacks the requisite socio-political context. Granted, it's still thoroughly exciting, but a bit more thought-provoking social commentary would have taken the film to another level.
In short, "Omar" is a entertaining film with high production values, accompanied by a compelling lead performance. Its Hollywood sheen and crowd-pleasing design make it easy to understand why the Academy was so taken with it. Like so many other Oscar nominees, it's gratifying in the moment, even if it's bound to fade from memory in the not-too-disant future. It's too bad that the narrative hinges so much on trite sentiments of young love, as it could have been a truly robust piece of socially conscious cinema.