Sometimes you know a film’s quality simply by the way it seems to single-handedly resurrect a particular sub-genre. Case in point: Roschdy Zem’s Omar Killed Me (2011), the kind of unjustly-accused courtroom drama that most of the time seems to spill over into predictable, trite, message-movie territory. There are some very notable exceptions (Breaker Morant, To Kill a Mockingbird, and Billy Budd come to mind), but part of the reason they work is that they are about so much more than an earnest plea for justice. Using an interesting narrative structure that is never tricky for its own sake, the film follows two protagonists and chronicles two different timelines.
The title character, gardener and Moroccan émigré Omar Raddad, received an eighteen-year sentence in 1994 for the murder of his wealthy employer. Although one of the biggest legal sensations in recent French history, Raddad’s story only belatedly caught the attention of author Pierre-Emmanuel Vaugrenard (he’s careful not to call himself a ‘journalist’). The film’s other protagonist, he’s played with a compelling mix of the dynamic and the cerebral by Denis Podalydès – he’s a crusader all right, but he never comes across as strident, or even self-righteous. Still, as if keenly aware of the kind of simple-minded and familiar anti-racist polemic the film might become, the script has Vaugrenard’s editor telling him, upon green-lighting an investigative book on Raddad, “Saving a Muslim could sell.”
Zem, an accomplished actor whom many of us probably caught as recently as 2010’s Point Blank, does a terrific job with the cast, but it’s really his storytelling that’s so impressive. Despite featuring lots of talking, Omar Killed Me never gets talky. Instead, it simply plays out like a compelling murder mystery. After all, how could one hope to defend someone who’s apparently accused – in a message left in her own blood, no less – by the victim herself? Still, some might be disappointed by the script’s avoidance of definitively identifying an alternate killer. But remember, this is based upon a true story, so finger-pointing that can’t be backed up but which motivates the audience’s indignation…that might start to reek of Hollywood product.
Indeed, the fact that there’s no single ‘bad guy’ is what makes Omar Killed Me work so well as a critique on a socio-political level. There are some fishy coroners, but we never confront them directly. There’s also a suspicious maid with an ex-con boyfriend, but he too remains off-screen. It’s these sorts of ambiguities and elliptical plot threads that flatter the audience’s intelligence yet never leave one feeling dissatisfied. That’s because Zem doesn’t position Omar Killed Me as the legal equivalent of a sports film, the kind where everything is clear-cut and you’re supposed to rise to your feet in feel-good exhilaration just moments before the closing credits.
Even the film’s most joyous moment, which involves Omar and his youngest son, is devastatingly undercut a minute later in a manner so simple and so powerful that you won’t soon forget it – which pretty much sums up Omar Killed Me as a whole. Without a question one of the highlights of this year’s New Directors/New Films festival.
Omar Killed Me screens at this year’s ND/NF on 24 March. For more info, visit newdirectors.org.