In Omar Killed Me, a straightforward indictment of the French justice system by actor turned director Roschdy Zem, lead star Sami Bouajila has the look of an eternally sad Sacha Baron Cohen, a tall, dark-featured man who might have been jubilant once, but will likely never laugh again. Bouajila is Omar Raddad, a real-life Moroccan-born Frenchman who, while working as a gardener in Marseilles in the mid ’90s, was accused of murdering his rich employer. No sooner were the fingers pointed than Omar was shuffled off to prison. A kindred film to so many that just battled it out for Oscar, Omar Killed Me is at best a very watchable performance showcase, cementing Bouajila as a formidable and highly affecting on-screen presence. His turn is an amalgam of dogged earnestness, pitiful heartbreak, and the visual wear of a personal fight against disadvantage. As a portrait of a complex immigrant made slave to the allegedly corrupt and racist legalities of his second home, the movie, which just missed 2011’s Academy lineup for Best Foreign Language Film, is well-drawn and rich, with enough internal exploration to do justice to its subject. But as an investigative courtroom drama, which is the certain shape it regrettably takes, this uniquely troubling tale imperils its integrity, broadly reading like an international mash-up dubbed A Time to Kill a Few Good Mockingbirds.
Based on both Raddad’s memoir Pourquoi Moi and Jean-Marie Rouart’s book Omar: La Construction d’un Coupable, the movie gets its name from what was half-scrawled, in blood, on a door of the victim’s home, right beside her body. It’s essentially all that’s needed to slap Raddad with an 18-year sentence, as no fingerprints were taken, no blood is found on his clothing, and the corpse winds up curiously cremated. On top of being made a scapegoat because of his lower class and skin color, Raddad is borderline illiterate, barely able to speak French, let alone read it. He’s chastised in court for his poor grasp of the language, and he must learn it if he hopes to read the book on his case that could spring him from prison. Authoring the book is Pierre-Emmanuel Vaugrenard (Denis Podalydès), an eccentric (and fictitious) scoop-chaser who, along with his girl Friday, Maud (Salomé Stévenin), systematically links the pieces the authorities dismiss. Painted as a quasi Clouseau-ian riff on Charlie Kaufman, who putters around on a motorbike and sports an unkempt, patchy mop, the Vaugrenard character provides oddly fitting, unmistakably French levity, not to mention literal and figurative color. But every scene that recounts the crime feels derivative and tedious, a clear side effect of manufactured drama. It’s all in opposition to, say, moments shared by Raddad and his father, which project crushing generational pain.
The adherence to a Grisham-like structure all but kills the film’s chances of leaving a lasting impression, but it doesn’t mar Zem’s directorial vision, which is constantly illustrating how only forced infamy could give Raddad significance. Upon his arrest, he’s rushed through an apartment complex that mirrors the Guggenheim’s rotunda, with tiers of neighbors staring down like an accusatory jury. When he’s eventually released from prison (scenes within which evoke both Hunger and A Prophet), he’s regarded as a celebrity. All of it shakes with devastating disappointment for Raddad, who strives to retain his idealistic notions of France as a just land of opportunity. “I need the judge to hear me,” he says with sincere hope. But Raddad is voiceless, and the painted angels he sees on the ceiling of an appeals court certainly aren’t his. Zem ultimately communicates his themes with bitter grace. During grippingly heated courtroom scenes, he juxtaposes public outcry with scenes of screaming prisoners, reinstating that everywhere’s a jail for someone like Raddad, a man at a constant remove from the place he inhabits.