You shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, and the same rules often apply to movie posters. One glance at the poster for “Philomena,” with its treacly-funny, Odd Couple implications, and cineastes wouldn’t be blamed for running for the hills, not expecting the morally complex, plausible and genuinely touching movie that exists beyond the marketing pander.
Ditto to the misleading poster for “Omar” that currently hangs in the Coral Gables Art Cinema, one of a handful of local theaters opening the film today. It’s an extreme close-up of an attractive young Palestinian couple locking lips underneath an undoubtedly out-of-context blurb from the Los Angeles Times’Betsy Sharkey lauding the film’s “Incredible Love Story!”
The intention may be to mislead Nicholas Sparks fans into the art-house ghetto, but don’t fall under that spell. “Omar” may be, somewhat, a love story, but it’s certainly not a romance. It’s more like a Shakespearean tragedy filmed by the Arab world’s answer to Martin Scorsese—a brutally violent and high-energy crime thriller about the perils of revolution.
The title character, played by Adam Bakri, is one of a cell of three Palestinian youths revolting against the Israeli occupation. But he’d rather spend his days with Nadia (Leem Lubany), his beloved, who lives on the Israeli side of the West Bank Wall—in a sense the Capulet to his Montague. When he is caught scaling the wall and then abused by a cadre of malicious Israeli border guides, he and his “freedom fighters” launch a sniper attack that leads to the death of an Israeli soldier. This creates a domino effect that dictates the rest of the film’s narrative, with Omar captured and forced to either collaborate with the occupiers or continue a battle that looks scarcely worth fighting as the lines between “friend” and “enemy” blur. The film becomes a succession of cautious alliances, deceptions and betrayals, perceived or otherwise, that leaves plenty of bodies in its wake.
Remarkably, director Hany Abu-Assad said he developed the serpentine story structure in just four hours and wrote the script in four days. Certainly, the film oozes inspiration and personality. In dramatizing the lives of revolutionaries, Abu-Assad creates an atmosphere of perpetual—and justified—paranoia on the sepia streets of the modern-day Palestinian territories, a world in which danger is instantaneous and escape routes must always be explored. The movie is most thrilling when it hits those streets, and the director’s fluid camera tracks Omar eluding his captors through alleys and backyards, markets and rooftops. He’s a rat in a familiar maze, and he knows all the ways out—at least until every possible exit is blocked.
I’m sure that “Omar” has faced its share of pro-Zionist backlash toward a film that has the audacity to explain and sympathize with the unrest and, yes, the terror that foments on the other side of the Wall (What’s that saying about “one man’s freedom fighter?” It’s one thing to hear about this conflict from a didactic, liberal, well-meaninged Israeli director grasping at thin narrative strands of peace between these warring cultures to show the rest of the world that things might not be so bad. It’s another to hear it from a far more uncompromising Palestinian who views the conflict from a jaundiced but realist eye.
But it’s hard to argue that Abu-Assad is a humanist. None of his characters’ violence is glorified, and his lone recurring Israeli character is a police investigator who comes across as a forgiving family man. The dynamics of occupation and revolution cut across cultures, and as a cautionary tale, “Omar” questions the worth of taking any human life in a violent uprising, no matter where it is in the world. It achieves the balance many international filmmakers aim for—geographically specific and universally relatable. The 2014 Best Foreign Language Film Oscar race now has its underdog.
“Omar” is now playing at Regal Shadowood 16 in Boca Raton, Living Room Theaters at FAU, Movies of Delray, Frank Theatres at Delray Marketplace, Movies of Lake Worth, and the Coral Gables Art Cinema.
The movie quote “I am Spartacus” has enjoyed an endless shelf life since the legions of Roman slaves all claimed to be the Thracian gladiator himself. But they weren’t really Spartacus, of course. Only Spartacus was Spartacus; that’s why he’s Spartacus, and we don’t know their names.
Such is not the case with “Gloria,” the breakthrough new film from Chilean director Sebastian Lelio, which opens Friday in South Florida. In this warm and relatable picture, you may find yourself saying, “That’s me. I am Gloria.” Far from the aspirational wish fulfillment of many movie heroes, the Gloria of the title is strikingly ordinary, a person indistinguishable from the madding crowd, a woman who doesn’t know what to do in every situation, and doesn’t possess the right conversational zinger at the right time. And more things don’t happen to her than do happen to her. After half a century of independent films gradually chipping away at ersatz Hollywood glamour, a movie like this is still refreshing. It’s like “Frances Ha” for older people.
Paulina Garcia, in a strikingly vulnerable and unguarded performance, plays Gloria, a middle-aged mother of two who has been divorced for more than a decade. We first find her dancing to synthpop music at a nightclub; it’s here that she’ll meet Rodolfo (Sergio Hernandez), an older, retired naval officer and fellow divorcee who is magnetically attracted to her freewheeling exuberance. They start to form a relationship even as red flags abound; Rodolfo has a habit of disappearing when put in situations even slightly uncomfortable, and he won’t disclose their relationship to his own children and ex-wife. Meanwhile, Gloria’s upstairs neighbor has been having chronic fits that are keeping him up at night, and there’s also a pesky hairless cat that keeps invading her apartment space; apparently, “Inside Llewyn Davis” isn’t the only winter film about a directionless character cohabiting with a feline.
Don’t expect much drama to ensue from these scenarios. Lelio resists all temptations for emotional grandiosity, resulting in a film that is so low-key, so rooted in the everyday, that it’s a double-edged sword: “Gloria” could use a gripping scene here, a jolt there, a compelling confrontation to accompany the slow burn, which pretty much extinguishes itself of its own accord (there is one scene, finally, in which Gloria releases a crowd-pleasing bit of revenge). But mostly, these de-dramatized weeks in the life of an average person strike notes of realism that are more than welcome at the box office. Lelio’s decision to virtually eliminate the use of a musical score ensures that the intimate scenes, both in and out of the bedroom, between Gloria and Rodolfo, are presented free of emotional cues. As a result, they have the excitement of fresh romance with a rising undercurrent of unease; we don’t really know what to think. Like Gloria, we’re just fumbling through them.
“Gloria” is now playing at Living Room Theaters at FAU.