Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Best Foreign Language Film nominee, OMAR from Hany Abu-Assad, opens in New York and L.A.

Last time we heard from Palestinian film-maker Hany Abu-Assad, it was heralding his fine Golden Globe-winning and Oscar-nominated movie Paradise Now from 2005. He's back this year with yet another Oscar nod for his newest film OMAR, which has also been nominated for and won some prestigious awards. If it does not quite come up to the level of his earlier film, it is still very good and very much worth view-ing, as it demonstrates the culpability of both today's Israel in keeping Palestinians enchained, and the youth of Palestine's insistence on overthrowing Israeli rule by any means necessary.

Interestingly enough, you can side with whichever group you choose and probably still find that this film works for you. It isn't so much that Mr. Abu-Assad (shown at left) is being completely even-handed. No. All the Israelis shown here range from disgusting downwards, yet the Palestinians we see seem to exist in a culture so thoroughly secretive and backward that as much as we might like to root for the film's would-be lovers, the titular Omar and his Nadia, their characters and actions, not to mention those of their peers, keep getting in the way. The filmmaker, who both wrote and directed Omar, has first and foremost concocted a love story, which he then fills with all the elements of a mys-tery thriller. The movie does not jump genres; it consistently exists as a kind of blending of them. I think Hitchcock might have been proud of this one. Even if it offers little of the master's command of visual technique, it offers a plethora of surprising plot machinations and manipulations.

Through it all, what holds the film together is the performance of its star, the titular Omar, played with a riveting combo of heartache and strength by Adam Bakri (above). His lady love, not yet out of school and also the sister of his childhood friend, is played with girlish wonder and perhaps a hint of possible perfidy, by Leem Lubany (below).

Abu-Assad uses simplicity and naivete, together with the charm and beauty of his two young actors, to help us initially believe in this love story. I wish he might have deepened the couple's relationship a bit more; as it is, he manages to pull us in.

Around these two sweethearts orbit her brother Tarek (Iyad Hoorani, above) and their mutual friend Amjad  (Samer Bisharat, below, left), who has his own romantic interest in Nadia.

Once the terrorism/liberation plot is put in motion, we finally meet the Israeli agent named Rami (Waleed Zuaiter, below), who initially presents a kindlier face of Israel.  Who is using who and to what end is a question the movie asks over and over.

After betrayals, expected and not, we finally learn the answer and -- once our shock has subsided -- cynicism kicks in big-time. The ending is as satisfying as possible under these circumstances.

Unlike the excellent Israel/Palestine film, Mars at Sunrise (released a couple of weeks back) and more like last year's dark and probing The Attack, this one offers little in the way of hope. In fact, its nomination as Best Foreign Language Film may surprise you, but it is, as usual, unlikely to win. Just as nominees over the past decade, Ajami and Paradise Now, failed to bring home the Oscar, so I predict, will Omar. Right now, it appears to be all that the Academy can do is to honor Palestine with a nomination now and then.

Meanwhile, Omar -- released here via Adopt Films and running just 96 minutes -- opens this Friday, February 21, in Los Angeles at Laemmle's Royal, Playhouse 7, Town Center 5 and Claremont 5, and in New York City at the Angelika Film Center and the Lincoln Plaza Cinema. In the weeks to come the film will open across the country. To view all currently playdates, cities and theaters, click here and then click on View Theaters & Showtimes.

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