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PARIS — The riveting real-life travails of a Moroccan immigrant accused of murder on the Côte d’Azur are explored with emotional intensity in the French procedural drama, Omar Killed Me(Omar m’a tuer). This second feature from actor-cum-director Roschdy Zem (Point Blank) plunges the viewer into the highly publicized 1990s affair, which saw a man who many believed to be innocent suffer under a Gallic penal system unwilling to look beyond circumstantial evidence and racial prejudices. A mesmerizing lead turn from Sami Bouajila, plus a still-newsworthy subject matter, should grant Omarextended leave beyond France and Europe.
The events began in June 1991 with the murder of 65-year-old Ghislaine Marchal, who was found stabbed and beaten to death in the basement of her villa, located in an affluent suburb north of Cannes. Among the clues discovered at the crime scene was the grammatically incorect inscription “Omar m’a tuer” (roughly translated as “Omar kill me”), written in Madame Marchal’s blood and pinpointing her gardener, Omar Raddad (Bouajila), as the murderer.
At the time, many questioned the fact that a wealthy and well-educated woman would make such an obvious French conjugation error, even on her deathbed. But as the screenplay (adapted from non-fiction sources by Zem and three co-writers) clearly suggests, the local police and prosecutors were less concerned with infallibly proving Raddad’s guilt than with nabbing an easy suspect: an uneducated, illiterate Moroccan who was incapable of defending himself in court.
Crosscutting between Raddad’s long and harrowing prison sentence, and the investigations of a novelist, Pierre-Emmanuel Vaugrenard (Denis Podalydes), whose humanist beliefs push him to write a book proving the man’s innocence, the pace barely lets up during a compact 85 minutes of engrossing historical dramatization. And despite a timeline that stretches for over a decade, Zem convincingly centers things around the gradual rehabilitation of Raddad both in his own eyes (he learns to read, write and better himself while in jail) and in those of the public (he would eventually be pardoned by President Jacques Chirac, though his conviction has yet to be overturned by the French courts).
There are several emotionally charged moments throughout the narrative, and they all belong to the formidable Bouajila (Days of Glory), here delivering one of his career-best performances as the humiliated yet deeply resilient Raddad. He’s well matched by Podalydes (The Conquest), who portrays Vaugrenard as a prominent intellectual obsessed with justice but unwilling to give up his five-star lifestyle to achieve it.
A late sequence where the two cross paths at the Académie Française says worlds about France’s class divide, while others reveal how Raddad was as much the target of a set-up as he was the victim of broad discrimination in the highly conservative Côte d’Azur region.
Maurice Benichou (Hidden) provides a strong supporting role as Raddad’s lawyer, the infamous defense attorney Jacques Verges (who was the subject of Barbet Schroeder’s 2007 documentary, Terror’s Advocate).
Tech contributions are solid on all fronts, with gritty widescreen photography by Jerome Almeras and a gloomy, suspenseful score by Alexandre Azaria.
Opens: In France June 22
Production companies: Tessalit Productions, Mars Films, France 2 Cinema, Hole in one films, la SNRT, Soread-2M
Cast: Sami Bouajila, Denis Podalydes, Maurice Benichou, Salome Stevenin, Nozha Khouadra
Director: Roschdy Zem
Screenwriters: Roschdy Zem, Olivier Gorce, Rachid Bouchareb, Olivier Lorelle
Based on books by: Omar Raddad, Jean-Marie Rouart
Producers: Jean Brehat, Rachid Bouchareb
Executive producers: Muriel Merlin
Director of photography: Jerome Almeras
Production designer: Francois Emmanuelli
Music: Alexandre Azaria
Costume designer: Veronique Tremoureux
Editor: Monica Coleman
Sales agent: Elle Driver
No rating, 85 minutes
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