TIFF 2017: Omerta (2017, Hansal Mehta)

Categories: 2017 and Movies.

What a mess. Where do I begin?

This is a deeply flawed movie with a first third that is okay and one really genuinely shocking and powerful moment that is otherwise a giant mess with flaws at basically every level of film construction. Mehta has made many films but I never would have guessed that from watching this film.

First, there’s the script, which has numerous problems. For example:

  • Though ostensibly about how Omar Sheikh became a terrorist, the film never actually shows (or tells) us how that happened beyond Omar deciding he wants to go to Bosnia
  • This and other explanatory aspects are left out of the script in favour of scenes that add nothing to our understanding of him or of terrorism in general
  • The dialogue in many of the scenes featuring just two characters feels stilted and contrived and inauthentic – someone should have been brought in to punch up these scenes
  • Basically one character in the entire film has any character development, everyone else is a cardboard cut-out
  • They change a pretty fundamental aspect of the story for reasons we could not figure out

Then there are the editing problems, which are legion:

  • Numerous shots are included of Omar doing things that don’t advance the plot, which wouldn’t bother me normally (I have no problem with that) but in this film are frustrating because we are missing so much of what we need to learn more about this character; the worst of it is a wedding scene which is included for reasons that I cannot quite figure out and it is included at the expense of other scenes that could be expanded or included to help us understand the character and the situtation
  • News footage and voice overs are included to tell us what happened, rather than to show us, and this device is used maybe four times (maybe more), which feels both lazy and inappopriate (and, honestly, does not add to the feeling of veracity)
  • The narrative structure of the film – which I did not have a problem with – means that the best part of the flim is its first act, meaning that the entire rest of the movie is a long slog
  • A few scenes feel out of sequence in the narrative so, for example, Danny Pearl is asking his captor about why his captor is doing this to him after he has made a video reading his captor’s demands (i.e. the reason his captor is doing this to him)
  • I understand why this construction was done – it has been done well in many better movies – but here it is just frustrating given that choices made about what scenes and shots to include

And then there is the horrible, over-the-top Bollywood-style score, which often has pounding action movie music for reasons which elude me.

So why am I giving it 4/10 if it’s got so many problems? When the script allows him to be, Rajkummar Rao is excellent. This film’s problems are not on him, nor on most of the cast. (Danny Pearl’s portrayer is not a standout though.) Also, there is one genuinely terrifying and shocking moment during the training sequences that really affected me in the way I thin Mehta hoped the whole film would affect me. Also, I fully understand this is a difficult subject to tackle and I appreciate the attempt at it, even if the resulting film is a giant mess. As I’ve said many times before, I prefer interesting or brave failures to mediocre formula films.

But if you are going to make a diffiult film about a difficult subject, you really need to get filmmaking basics right. And this film doesn’t do that to a rather shocking extent.

4/10

Seconded by Jenn

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