By: Henry J. Fromage (A Toast) –
There have been a great many Palestinian dramas and documentaries to make their way onto Oscar’s (and my) radar over the years, but the one that always stood out for me was Paradise Now– Hany Abu Assad’s 2005 drama about two suicide bombers preparing to commit the deed. It’s a deeply human portrait of people trapped by both their environment and their own decisions, and is so good precisely because it avoids the pitfall many similar films make of valuing politics and message over character. When you foreground character your message becomes even more impacting.
And when character finishes third after Message and Nonsense, you get The Happening
With Omar, Abu-Assad’s done it again. Omar (Adam Bakri), is a young rebellious Palestinian involved in a low-impact revolutionary/terrorist (pick your poison) cell and in love with its leader’s younger sister (Leem Lubany). When they shoot an Israeli soldier, he’s swept up by the Israeli Secret Service and presented with an impressive choice- betray everything he believes in and inform on his friends and compatriots, or rot in jail for the rest of his life.
That plot description actually, while completely accurate, does this film a bit of a disservice. Omar zigs where other movies in the genre take a long, overly familiar zag, focusing not just on Omar’s personal dilemma, but how it affects the personal relationships in his life, in particular how it becomes leverage for several layers of self interest, concerning all involved. It’s a tale of love, betrayal, and revenge first, almost a Palestinian Count of Monte Cristo (don’t read too much into that), before a done-to-death Israel/Palestine issues film.
Bakri is a magnetic, relatable lead, reminding me at times of a younger Gael Garcia Bernal, and his chemistry with Lubany is aces (and she gets some quality acting scenes as well).
It doesn’t hurt that she looks like a dark-haired Isla Fisher
Abu-Assad produces a slick, crisply shot film that becomes remarkable when you consider his budget, and shows a penchant for dynamic action and chase sequences that should easily land him a tentpole if he ever so chose. Most impressive, though, is how a strong message still emerges from the circumstances and environment of the film (instead of being forcefed to us). Palestine here almost feels like a dystopian future world a la Elysium, a grey locked down place whose people on both sides are caught in the gears of a vast machine, with no clear escape. Whatever your beliefs, you can’t ignore that.
Some people who need to read politics into everything may be put off by a film with such a relentless focus on the personal, but I saw a classic story wearing the trappings of a modern situation, and rarely have I seen that story done better.
Take a Drink: every time Omar gets chased or shot at
Take a Drink: every time he hops the wall
Take a Drink: whenever Omar gets pressured to flip
Take a Drink: whenever someone suspects that he has
Do a Shot: whenever someone makes a bad joke
Do a Shot: kitty!