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Toronto Film Review: ‘Omertà’

The life of a notorious real-life terrorist is dramatized in a film that provides little insight into his motivations.

Rajkummar Rao, Kewal Arora, Timothy Ryan Hickernell, Rupinder Nagra, Rajesh Tailang. (Hindi, English, Urdu dialogue.)

Hansal Mehta’s latest feature dramatizes the life of Ahmed Omar Saeed Sheikh, a notorious real-life terrorist long behind bars — which hasn’t stopped him from being involved in various attacks, purportedly including 9/11. The compelling “Omertà,” whose title is an Italian term for a criminal code of honor that encompasses absolute non-cooperation with legal authorities, cobbles together speculation with what is known about the many-alias’d Saeed, a 43-year-old British national of Pakistani heritage who has been at the forefront of fundamentalist Islamic terror for nearly a quarter-century.

At the end of this slickly mounted film, there’s no lack of questions still dangling nor hoped-for insights that fail to arrive. Nonetheless, while you’re watching it, Mehta’s freely imagined biopic provides a fascinating Rorschach of a figure who is, unfortunately, truly a man for our times.

Scrambling chronology, Mehta and co-scenarist Mukul Dev lead off with an incident sure to grab Western viewers’ attention: In 1994, the young but already fervently committed Saeed utilizes his considerable skills as a multi-linguist and sociopathic actor to ingratiate himself with three British men and one American woman, all tourists in New Delhi. They find themselves held captive, their lives threatened if the Indian government fails to release 10 militants imprisoned in the fight for Kashmir independence. Perhaps because the hostages survive unharmed (though one perp and two policemen died in a shootout), this is one of the few crimes Saeed has actually confessed to.

The London-born terrorist — played with steely conviction by Hindi thesp Rajkummar Rao — is also glimpsed in a series of globe-trotting episodes detailing actions he hasn’t necessarily copped to in real life. (He’s been imprisoned in Pakistan for years, yet continues to be linked to various criminal plots, presumably given an excess of communicative liberty by Pakistani authorities.) The most notorious event in which Saeed was purportedly involved was the 2002 kidnapping and murder of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl, played here by Timothy Ryan Hickernell. Mehta and Dev portray a particular version of this much-debated incident that fully involves Saeed, yet absolves him of the worst speculated abuses.

The earliest flashbacks from the protagonist’s young-adult days show an apparent political fervency, yet offer little insight into how he got that way. Repetitive scenes involving his appalled bourgeoise father certainly provide no clue. Saeed is married off to a trophy wife by the Pakistan government for services rendered, but the relationship is drawn in sketchy, remote terms. We get it: He’s a cold fish. Nonetheless, “Omertà” doesn’t penetrate deep enough to provide a resonant portrait of sociopathy. Nor does it spell out the specifics of Saeed’s political or (particularly) religious convictions.

Yet the film is taut throughout, an expertly staged thriller about a baffling paradox of a real-world man. Ishaan Chhabra’s original score tries to thrust conventional genre suspense beats on a convoluted story that shrugs them off yet fascinates anyway. In all other tech/design departments, this is an Indian feature unusually attuned to Western tastes.

Toronto Film Review: 'Omertà'

Reviewed at Toronto Film Festival (Special Presentation), Sept. 12, 2017. Running time: 96 MIN.

Production: (India) A Swiss Entertainment and Karma Features production. (International sales: Filmkaravan, Cupertino, Calif.) Producers: Nahid Khan, Shailesh Singh. Executive producers: Jai Mehta, Shanaab Alam.

Crew: Director: Hansal Mehta. Screenplay: Mehta, Mukul Dev. Camera (color, HD): Anuj Rakesh Dhawan. Editor: Aditya Warrior. Music: Ishaan Chhabra.

With: Rajkummar Rao, Kewal Arora, Timothy Ryan Hickernell, Rupinder Nagra, Rajesh Tailang. (Hindi, English, Urdu dialogue.)

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