Hany Abu-Assad returns to Palestine once again for this rare balancing act of a film. While you could classify this film as a thriller, it effectively holds back at every turn to subvert how we typically perceive thrillers. It’s not just a slow burn of a thriller, it’s a no burn. And that’s not a criticism, that’s praise. Even in slow burns there is some variation of explosion within the characters or themes, but here it still holds a hard line of restraint in those explosions.
The plot revolves around the title character Omar, who is a member of a revolutionary outfit in Palestine. He is captured and manipulated into becoming an informer for Agent Rami, a man who wants Omar to give up his childhood friend Tarek in exchange for Omar’s freedom to be with his love Nadia.
No character is presented as just one thing, as any effective thriller will do. As much as Agent Rami is out to manipulate Omar, we see him struggle with mundane tasks of getting a relative to pick up his daughter from kindergarten. At points you believe he really does want the best for Omar. Omar’s friends and girlfriend all at points seem to be hiding ulterior motives behind their eyes.
What makes this mystique work is the acting. Almost all of the principle cast are newcomers, but understand the power of subtlety. Right in line with Abu-Assad’s direction, they hold back at each revelation in the plot. As Omar, Adam Bakri is mostly silent, letting the subtleties in his face do the character exposition. Just as his character would have to survive by not giving anything away, Bakri doesn’t give anything away to the camera. We are forced to search for it, and it’s an engaging search.
Abu-Assad has shown a formidable steady hand in his return to Palestinian films. As in his film “Paradise Lost”, there is definitely a political undercurrent in the film, but what you come away with is what it’s like to live in Palestine. And as a moviegoer, it’s much more effective to understand the everyday lives of those in this contentious place than to just make a statement about the problems there. The understanding of how awful things are there for Palestinians is only made effective through character. Abu-Assad understands this, and uses character effectively to get his message across in a way that does not hit you over the head, but rather beckons you to sit down and hear its tale.