'Abu Omar' tells a tragic story - review

Abu Omar is about a Palestinian father whose son dies of a heart defect and is stuck in Israel with his son's body.

 KAIS NASHIF in Roy Krispel's 'Abu Omar'. (photo credit: LAILA FILMS)
KAIS NASHIF in Roy Krispel's 'Abu Omar'.
(photo credit: LAILA FILMS)

You probably aren’t going to see Roy Krispel’s movie Abu Omar, which opens on Thursday, and as soon as I describe the plot, you are likely going to stop reading this review.

But before you do, let me say that Kais Nashif, who plays the lead in the film, gives an extraordinary performance as a grieving father. Nashif, who won the Best Actor Award for Sameh Zoabi’s Tel Aviv on Fire at the Venice Film Festival in 2018, is one of the finest actors working today and gets better with every movie. 

If Abu Omar were a movie that would reach a sizable audience, he would be showered with awards for it. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen an actor so fully capture the exhaustion that comes with grief, or the despair. He is a quiet, low-key actor and he does not need to do much to make your heart ache for this father whose tragic loss is made far more intense and upsetting because of the strange set of circumstances in which he finds himself. Had it not been for his brilliant work, this difficult movie would have been utterly unwatchable. 

Nashif plays Salah, a Palestinian whose son, Omar, was born with a heart defect but died following an operation at an Israeli hospital – one of hundreds of Palestinian babies who are treated for heart problems in Israel every year – a title at the opening informs us. As other Palestinian families in the hospital waiting room get good news and praise the doctors, he is told that the hospital cannot transport his son’s body back to the West Bank village where he lives. 

He sets off with the body in a tote bag, and in a set of circumstances that is sadly plausible, he cannot return to his home, because of a West Bank closure. “No one goes in, no one comes out,” soldiers tell him at every checkpoint he tries. 

So he is left to wander the streets of Tel Aviv carrying his son, dazed and unable to find help, until Miri (Shany Verchik), a single pregnant woman who lives with her blind mother, takes him in and makes it her mission to get across the border. 

What follows is a strange and upsetting road movie, as the two end up in different places that show nearly every facet of Israeli life. They go to the desert, where they fall asleep. In a village near the security wall, an imam blesses Salah and insists that the child be buried there, but Salah is set on returning to his home.

In Jerusalem, some thugs pick a fight with him, assuming that he and Miri are a mixed couple. The police say they cannot hold him and insist that he return home as soon as possible, but they can’t tell him how to do that.

In the film’s weakest section, they go to a Dead Sea hotel where Miri’s former flame, Yoav (Miki Leon), is a manager. I didn’t care for one second about why Yoav and Miri’s relationship fell apart years before, nor about his new girlfriend (Hila Mezger). I just hoped Yoav would help Salah get home. 

The movie is symbolic on many levels and finds black humor in some of the absurdities of life here. Two symbols are especially prominent. Salah is given a Beitar Jerusalem tote bag at the hospital in which to carry his son, and this bag protects him from being searched at the entrance to a shopping mall, as the guards assume he, like them, is a fan of the soccer club known for having a core group of racist fans who do not want any Arab players on the team.

The second is that Miri tries – and fails – to make a living selling subscriptions at the mall to the left-leaning Haaretz, and at one point, Salah wraps the body in a copy of the newspaper. 

I would guess the director is using these two ideologically opposed institutions, the soccer club and the newspaper, to show that neither the Right nor the Left is doing enough to bring both sides together in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But maybe it means something else, I’m only sure that Beitar and Haaretz are not there by accident. 

Nashif makes Salah’s odyssey of suffering into a universal story of loss. Abu Omar’s characters are fully human and realistic, which makes it possible to sit through this very upsetting film, although had I not been reviewing it, I would probably have walked out.

The well-observed details make it far more entertaining than you would imagine. For example, Salah explains that he named his baby Omar after Omar Sharif, his mother’s favorite actor since she saw him in Doctor Zhivago and he tells the plot to Miri. She puts on a CD her mother has in the car, and an upbeat French song by Enrico Macias – about the joys of childrearing – plays and causes Salah to turn off the music. He understands French and cannot stand to hear another word. 

But while you never see the baby’s face, it is still a gruesome situation, made worse by details I don’t even want to write about. When Roy Krispel makes another film, and I hope he will, it would be great if he chose a subject a little less excruciating than Abu Omar, no matter how well done it is.