The story is the star in “Omar Killed Me,” a level-headed but gripping adaptation of the true events involving a Moroccan gardener accused of murdering his wealthy employer on the French Riviera in 1991. One of Gaul’s most versatile actors, Sami Bouajila, adds another deeply felt turn to his resume in this classically assembled crime-and-courtroom drama from Bouajila’s “Outside the Law” co-star, Roschdy Zem. Late June release sold more than half a million tickets in France, and will have its international preem at Toronto, where buyers of classy sociopolitical fare should take note.
French title literally translates as “Omar Has Kill Me,” which was written in clearly legible script, using the blood and finger of the victim, on the inside of the door of the basement where the old lady was murdered. Since the door was locked, it was entirely dark inside and the woman, who was far from illiterate, was gushing blood from multiple wounds, it is unlikely she would ungrammatically point out her killer in her last moments.
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But racial and class prejudice and the need for a victim trumped these concerns, and her gardener, Omar Raddad (Bouajila), was found guilty of the crime, despite offering a partially verifiable alibi.
Though the pic is inspired by the real case, which was one of the biggest media events in the early 1990s in France, its approach to the story is fictional, since the investigating journo, Pierre-Emmanuel Vaugrenard (Denis Podalydes), doesn’t actually exist.
Zem co-wrote the screenplay with screenwriters Olivier Gorce and Olivier Lorelle (the latter also a producer) and scribe-producer Rachid Bouchareb, who, as a director, has worked extensively with both Zem and Bouajila (“Days of Glory,” “Outside the Law”).
Technically as well as in terms of writing and mise-en-scene, pic’s approach is sober but solid, starting with Raddad’s deposition, via an interpreter, in 1994, before looking at how he got to that point and what happened after his imprisonment. Editor Monica Coleman nimbly switches between the different storylines and periods.
Punching holes into the theories of the police and the accusers are Vaugrenard, who is aided by a sprightly assistant (Salome Stevenin), and Raddad’s cunningly intelligent lawyer, Maitre Verges (Maurice Benichou), one of France’s most famous defense lawyers (his work was examined in Barbet Schroeder docu “Terror’s Advocate”).
Along the way, the pic sheds light on how a simple guilty or not guilty verdict can become clouded by prejudice, procedural mistakes and subsequent cover-ups. Part of the story’s fascination lies in the fact it doesn’t tell the tale of a clearly innocent man struggling against mighty odds, but rather an ugly true story fraught with racism, class problems and prejudice, and other assorted societal ills.
Bouajila’s nuanced, deeply humanistic perf — which neatly balances innocence and anger over his conviction, incomprehension and a steadfast faith in the legal system of his adopted home country — assures aud identification with his character, despite the fact Raddad isn’t portrayed as a saint. Supporting cast is spot-on.