Oscar-nominated ‘Omar’ places protagonist on pedestal

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A wall is not a fence. A fence is a line of demarcation, whereas a wall is a physical barrier. A wall says, “We don’t want you here,” — a simple way to encapsulate the current conflict between Israel and Palestine.

“Omar,” directed by Hany Abu-Assad (“Paradise Now”), tells story about Palestinian baker Omar (Adam Bakri), who climbs the separation wall into the occupied West Bank territory every day. After climbing the wall, Omar meets his friend and co-conspirator Tarek (Eyad Hourani) and Tarek’s teenaged sister Nadja (Leem Lubany), the object of Omar’s affections.

Along with co-conspirator Amjad (Samer Bisharat), Omar and Tarek make a plan to kill an Israeli soldier, a novice plan made by a fledgling terrorist group that believes killing a soldier will send a clear message to their Israeli tormentors, suggesting they prepare for more acts of violence.

The friends barely manage to execute the murderous plan but are proud of their accomplishment, convinced it is the first step toward liberation.

However, they are caught the next day. Although Tarek and Amjad escape, Omar is captured and tortured by Israeli forces. A game of betrayal begins in which most of the characters act selfishly, forcing Omar to carry the heaviest burden and pay the greatest price.

Adam Bakri plays Omar convincingly, managing to portray the character’s pain, vulnerability and resilience in a very natural way, but the treatment of his character is cause for concern.

Omar views the world in terms of good and evil while the other characters avoid such storybook terms, understanding complexities of life. Omar is always the victim, despite making the only ethical choices in the film.

In this way, Omar’s over-simplified righteousness is the attribute that most detracts from his believability. In the end, our sympathies lie with everyone except the protagonist, making the intent of the film unclear.

In “Paradise Now,” Abu-Assad’s film before “Omar,” the director provided beautifully flawed and conflicted protagonists whose choices are dictated by their troubled pasts and present personal relationships. They show fear and courage, apathy and empathy, love and hate. Members of the audience could see themselves in these characters because they make similar choices.

In “Omar,” Abu-Assad struggles to develop a relatable protagonist because the story renders Omar a difficult figure to empathize with. Omar is a hero, but he is also idealized, and ideal characters tend to fit better in religious books than in cinematic dramas.

A version of this article appeared in the Wednesday, Feb. 19 print edition. Rohan Narula is a contributing writer. Email him at [email protected]