Small Things Writ Large: On OMAR

Small Things Writ Large: On OMAR


In large and small ways, the media confront us each day
with realities that are larger than we are, and yet rarely do these realities
touch us in any lasting way. Global warming, for example, is a crushing
problem, but most of us won’t be truly concerned about it until our homes are flooded
by overflowing oceans. War, and its daily presence in other cultures, most
certainly in the Middle East, is another one: we don’t think of what life
side-by-side with bombings, terrorism and other horrors must be like because we
never see the details of that life: the news, as reported, is an abstraction. Omar, the newest film from Hany Abu-Assad,
the director of the suicide-bomber story Paradise
among other films, brings the concept of life in a war-addled clime to viewers as anything but
an abstraction. The film draws its greatest strength from its smallest touches:
the way someone smiles, the way a love letter is folded, the small habits and
quirks an otherwise brutal person might possess. We watch those details,
absorb them, are fascinated by them. Then, when the larger-than-life world
intrudes, we are all the more horrified because we feel as if, in the
flickering way we might “know” a character in a film, we know the people bearing the brunt of the intrusion. 

It doesn’t hurt that the characters here are so personable,
and distinct from one another. In fact it makes the central love triangle in
the film, which is intertwined with the story of three freedom fighters whose working
bond ultimately erodes because of mutual suspicion, all the more wrenching. In
the opening, we watch Omar (Adam Bakri) climbing a city wall in occupied Palestine to see his love, Nadia
(Leem Lubany), the sister of Tarek (Eyad Hourani), one of Omar’s fellow fighters;
Omar is shot at, just as he clears the top. Omar’s path through the film
remains like this: rife with danger and the threat of either death or
imprisonment. The three young men—Tarek, Omar, and Abjan (Samer Bisharat), the
clown of the trio (and also in love with Nadia)—interact with great ease. Their
banter is so spontaneous and funny at times, like electrified small talk, that
it rings Tarantino-esque, even as its backdrop is horrific. Not twenty minutes
into this film, Omar is arrested and imprisoned. His chief questioner, Agent
Rami, is a menace, though you wouldn’t think it. He’s full of humanizing little
gestures, like a nervous consumption of Tic-Tacs. Waleed Zuaiter’s performance
projects a relaxation hiding a more tense, complex spirit—and a deep desire to
get information out of Omar about his operations. Their dialogue has a mood
we’ve seen before, in other films, ranging from Pacino and DeNiro’s interchange
in Heat to Denzel Washington’s prison
interrogation room banter with Russell Crowe’s detective in American Criminal:
predator and prey, circling around each other, pretending otherwise. The
comparison to American suspense movies goes farther, indeed, as there is
something near-breathless about the film’s pace—Omar is a fast runner, but he
seems even faster here because you know what he’s running from. The torture
scenes are unmitigated, as are the scenes in Omar’s cell, where, again, details
take over. Lying still after a long beating, Omar sees a small bug crawling
across the floor. Suddenly he, and we, pay far more attention to that bug than
we might normally, as the camera moves in on it: the bug, in fact, becomes a
metaphor for any number of things. A feeling of humiliation. A sense of
powerlessness. A quality of innocence. At one point, Omar whispers to the
small, green bug: “It will be okay,” summoning hope from who knows what

The love story between Omar and Nadia doesn’t really get
happier as it goes along. It starts so sweetly, with Nadia bringing the three
cohorts tea, slipping a note for Omar under his cup, and telling Abjan she
won’t serve him until he imitates Marlon Brando, in a small, Tarantino-esque
move. (Abjan only makes a few sounds, but he does a good job.) The notes Omar
and Nadia pass each other are, yes, an old-fashioned trope, but the clash of
the gesture’s innocence with a violence-drenched backdrop sends out static
sparks. They tell each other little stories in their notes, and speak lyrically
and expansively, the way people do when they first fall in love. Unfortunately,
when the “real world” crashes into their love, all innocence ends. Omar is
placed in prison several times over the course of the film; with each sentence,
his comrades’ suspicion increases that he is informing on them. Also, his love
becomes more complicated with each departure as Nadia’s interest shifts to
Abjan. The love triangle eventually collapses, as one would suspect it would,
and the film milks poignancy from that collapse. There’s no melodrama, here,
very little screaming or fighting. As with the rest of the film, what we notice
are the nuances, such as Nadia’s whispered “okay” when her father asks her if
she will accept her suitor’s hand in marriage, as if he were asking her to pass
a plate of food. The dissolution of love is not the only sad news this movie
brings us—although the other news is delivered with a similarly devastating
lack of fanfare.

It would be enough for Omar
to be a successful action film set in a politically fraught part of the world.
It would also suffice for it be a well-told and tastefully handled love story.
But this film manages to mix and blend the two with tremendous grace. And, more
importantly, it puts a human face on events which are perpetually changing
history but which remain un-absorbed until they are at our doorstep, knocking,
and then entering unasked.

Max Winter is the Editor of Press Play.

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