Omar, film review: Hany Abu-Assad's Oscar-nominated thriller is shot from the heart

4.00

(15) Hany Abu-Assad, 96 mins. Starring: Adam Bakri, Leem Lubany, Iyad Hoorani, Samer Bisharat

Hany Abu-Assad's Oscar-nominated Omar has an intensity that many Cold War spy films lack. It is an embroiled story of spy craft and betrayal but this time, the setting isn't Berlin or George Smiley's London.

The film unfolds in the present day, in the heart of occupied Palestine. Abu-Assad's screenplay expertly interweaves personal and political elements. This is at once a coming-of-age drama, a romance and a thriller that combines multiple reversals and plot twists with chases and action sequences. There is also a documentary-like aspect to its portrayal of a divided and occupied Palestine in which the lines between everyday family life and political struggle have long since become blurred.

Abu-Assad doesn't skimp on showing the brutality of the Israeli military but many of the most shocking acts of violence here are perpetrated by the Palestinians.

Omar (Adam Bakri) is first seen scaling the "isolation wall" that was ostensibly built to protect Israelis from Palestinian "terrorists". He is young and athletic. The reason he is climbing the wall as surveillance bullets whistle round him is simply to visit his friend Tarek (Eyad Horuani), whose beautiful younger sister Nadia (Leem Lubany) he is courting.

It is typical of Abu-Assad's approach that Omar's acrobatics, which we suspect will be the prelude to a bombing or an assassination, end up with nothing more sinister than the protagonist meeting his friends. Amjad (Samer Bisharat), his rival for Nadia's affections, does his best Marlon Brando impersonation. He, Tarek and Omar sit around and shoot the breeze as if they're Palestinian equivalents to the carefree young bucks on the verge of adulthood in Barry Levinson's Diner.

Secret tryst: Omar (Adam Bakri) scales the Secret tryst: Omar (Adam Bakri) scales the "isolation wall" to visit his friend's younger sister Nadia (Leem Lubany)
Of course, there is nothing ordinary about their lives. We see Omar, a baker by trade, harassed and humiliated by Israeli soldiers. He and his friends have no freedom of movement. Bristling against the restrictions placed on them, they have become "freedom fighters." When they are involved in an act of violence against the Israelis, the retribution is swift. "No way we will let a soldier-killer go free" is the message from the Israelis. They are faced with torture and imprisonment. The only chance to save themselves is to turn informer.

Abu-Assad, who was also Oscar nominated for his 2005 film Paradise Now, a tragicomic account of a suicide bombing, has a flair for action. The chase sequences here are reminiscent of those in Julien Duvivier's Pépé Le Moko (1937), in which Jean Gabin's criminal on the run flees through the labyrinthine alleyways of the casbah with the cops behind him. We see Omar leaping across buildings, hurtling down stairways and trying to blend into crowds as the Israeli security forces come after him.

Such rip-roaring moments sit a little uncomfortably next to the scenes in which prisoners are being tortured and blackmailed. Abu-Assad, though, is always ready to confound audience expectations. One of the most sympathetic characters is Agent Rami (Waleed Zuaiter), the Israeli security agent who tries to manipulate the Palestinians and turn them against one another. There is one telling and very poignant scene in which this seemingly shadowy and sinister figure calls his mother to ask her to pick up his child. He is at work "and stuck in the middle of the fucking West Bank", which makes school pick-up a challenge. A more conventional film would simply show Rami as the villain. Instead, Abu-Assad portrays him as a cultured and decent man. He has an obvious rapport with Omar who, in theory, is his fiercest antagonist.

Carefree: Amjad, Tarek and Omar sit around and shoot the breeze Carefree: Amjad, Tarek and Omar sit around and shoot the breeze
This is a film in which everyone turns out to be deceiving everyone else. "Never confess" is one of the sacred principles of the freedom fighters but, we soon discover, there are degrees of treachery. Subterfuge and stealth are a necessary part of everyday existence. The deception extends into the most intimate parts of the characters' privates lives. When Omar wants to see Nadia, he often has to hide in the shadows. Lovers aren't honest. Childhood friends keep secrets from one another or spy on each other. The paranoia mounts. Everyone knows there is an informer in their midst but it is well-nigh impossible to identify where the leaks are coming from. Inevitably, there is even a degree of self-deception as characters try to justify their own actions.

Between Paradise Now and Omar, Abu-Assad made a very badly received American thriller called The Courier (2012) starring Mickey Rourke. As he himself later acknowledged, everything about it, from its characters to its settings, was artificial. One reason that Omar is so effective is that it feels real. The director is portraying a world he knows from the inside. He shot the film partly in Palestine with a predominantly Palestinian crew and cast. They may not be experienced but they bring an obvious energy and commitment to the project. Adam Bakri, in particular, is impressive as the mercurial, conscience-torn hero.

Another of the film's strengths is the way it tones down the polemics. The situation its characters face is self-evident. The Palestinians are living under occupation. The Israeli soldiers are subject to the constant threat of violence. There is no need for speechifying to point out either side's predicament. A simple shot of Omar clambering over the huge isolation wall visit his girlfriend is more eloquent than any monologue in expressing the character's yearning and desperation.

Some of the sudden lurches in tone in Omar are disconcerting. The film combines gentle comedy and moments of lyricism with scenes of torture and violence. Such shifts are intentional. Abu-Assad is simply reflecting the ever-changing nature of his characters' daily lives in a fraught and strange environment in which betrayal has become endemic.

Arts and Entertainment
Alfred Molina, left, and John Lithgow in a scene from 'Love Is Strange'

After giving gay film R-rating despite no sex or violence

film
Arts and Entertainment
Robin Williams will be given a 'meaningful remembrance' at the Emmy Awards

film
Arts and Entertainment

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Arctic Monkeys headline this year's Reading and Leeds festivals, but there's a whole host of other bands to check out too
music
Arts and Entertainment
Blue singer Simon Webbe will be confirmed for Strictly Come Dancing

tv
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Educating the East End returns to Channel 4 this autumn

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch will voice Shere Khan in Andy Serkis' movie take on The Jungle Book

film
Arts and Entertainment
DJ Calvin Harris performs at the iHeartRadio Music Festival

music
Arts and Entertainment
The eyes have it: Kate Bush

music
Arts and Entertainment
From left to right: Mark Crown, DJ Locksmith and Amir Amor of Rudimental performing on stage during day one of the Wireless Festival at Perry Park, Birmingham

music
Arts and Entertainment

books
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Vine has won the funniest joke award at the Edinburgh Festival 2014

Edinburgh
Arts and Entertainment
Peter Capaldi and Chris Addison star in political comedy The Thick of IT

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Judy Murray said she

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Vine has won the funniest joke award at the Edinburgh Festival 2014

edinburgh
Arts and Entertainment
Jeremy Paxman has admitted he is a 'one-nation Tory' and complained that Newsnight is made by idealistic '13-year-olds' who foolishly think they can 'change the world'.

Edinburgh
Arts and Entertainment
Seoul singer G-Dragon could lead the invasion as South Korea has its sights set on Western markets
music
Arts and Entertainment
Gary Lineker at the UK Premiere of 'The Hunger Games: Catching Fire'
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Christian Bale as Batman in a scene from
film
Arts and Entertainment
Johhny Cash in 1969
musicDyess Colony, where singer grew up in Depression-era Arkansas, opens to the public
Arts and Entertainment
Army dreamers: Randy Couture, Sylvester Stallone, Dolph Lundgren and Jason Statham
film
Arts and Entertainment
The Great British Bake Off 2014 contestants
tvReview: It's not going to set the comedy world alight but it's a gentle evening watch
Arts and Entertainment
Umar Ahmed and Kiran Sonia Sawar in ‘My Name Is...’
Theatre
Arts and Entertainment
This year's Big Brother champion Helen Wood
arts + ents
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Middle East crisis: We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

    We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

    Now Obama has seen the next US reporter to be threatened with beheading, will he blink, asks Robert Fisk
    Neanderthals lived alongside humans for centuries, latest study shows

    Final resting place of our Neanderthal neighbours revealed

    Bones dated to 40,000 years ago show species may have died out in Belgium species co-existed
    Scottish independence: The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

    The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

    Scotland’s immigrants are as passionate about the future of their adopted nation as anyone else
    Britain's ugliest buildings: Which monstrosities should be nominated for the Dead Prize?

    Blight club: Britain's ugliest buildings

    Following the architect Cameron Sinclair's introduction of the Dead Prize, an award for ugly buildings, John Rentoul reflects on some of the biggest blots on the UK landscape
    eBay's enduring appeal: Online auction site is still the UK's most popular e-commerce retailer

    eBay's enduring appeal

    The online auction site is still the UK's most popular e-commerce site
    Culture Minister Ed Vaizey: ‘lack of ethnic minority and black faces on TV is weird’

    'Lack of ethnic minority and black faces on TV is weird'

    Culture Minister Ed Vaizey calls for immediate action to address the problem
    Artist Olafur Eliasson's latest large-scale works are inspired by the paintings of JMW Turner

    Magic circles: Artist Olafur Eliasson

    Eliasson's works will go alongside a new exhibition of JMW Turner at Tate Britain. He tells Jay Merrick why the paintings of his hero are ripe for reinvention
    Josephine Dickinson: 'A cochlear implant helped me to discover a new world of sound'

    Josephine Dickinson: 'How I discovered a new world of sound'

    After going deaf as a child, musician and poet Josephine Dickinson made do with a hearing aid for five decades. Then she had a cochlear implant - and everything changed
    Greggs Google fail: Was the bakery's response to its logo mishap a stroke of marketing genius?

    Greggs gives lesson in crisis management

    After a mishap with their logo, high street staple Greggs went viral this week. But, as Simon Usborne discovers, their social media response was anything but half baked
    Matthew McConaughey has been singing the praises of bumbags (shame he doesn't know how to wear one)

    Matthew McConaughey sings the praises of bumbags

    Shame he doesn't know how to wear one. Harriet Walker explains the dos and don'ts of fanny packs
    7 best quadcopters and drones

    Flying fun: 7 best quadcopters and drones

    From state of the art devices with stabilised cameras to mini gadgets that can soar around the home, we take some flying objects for a spin
    Joey Barton: ‘I’ve been guilty of getting a bit irate’

    Joey Barton: ‘I’ve been guilty of getting a bit irate’

    The midfielder returned to the Premier League after two years last weekend. The controversial character had much to discuss after his first game back
    Andy Murray: I quit while I’m ahead too often

    Andy Murray: I quit while I’m ahead too often

    British No 1 knows his consistency as well as his fitness needs working on as he prepares for the US Open after a ‘very, very up and down’ year
    Ferguson: In the heartlands of America, a descent into madness

    A descent into madness in America's heartlands

    David Usborne arrived in Ferguson, Missouri to be greeted by a scene more redolent of Gaza and Afghanistan
    BBC’s filming of raid at Sir Cliff’s home ‘may be result of corruption’

    BBC faces corruption allegation over its Sir Cliff police raid coverage

    Reporter’s relationship with police under scrutiny as DG is summoned by MPs to explain extensive live broadcast of swoop on singer’s home