Director Hany Abu-Assad, a Palestinian born in Nazareth, Israel, earned an Academy Award nomination for his 2005 film Paradise Now, a tense psychological drama about two young Palestinians men planning a suicide bombing against Israeli citizens. He followed it with a little-seen Hollywood thriller (The Courier), and now returns to his troubled home turf with Omar, another Academy Award-nominated drama, that’s a smartly-calibrated blend of thriller and political provocation.
Omar, one of five Oscar nominees for best foreign language film, is about the collision of political and social pressures that leads to violence, which is neither explicitly justified nor condemned. Omar (Adam Bakri), is a handsome, shy young baker working in a West Bank village. He climbs back and forth over the Israeli security wall that separates him from his girlfriend, Nadia (Leem Lubani), who is still a school girl. He gives her the latest short stories he has written, and takes time to visit his clownish buddy, Amjad (Samer Bisharat), who also has a crush on Nadia. They make jokes about Marlon Brando and Brad Pitt, and dream of travelling to Paris, just like teens might anywhere.
On one of his trips over the wall, Omar gets caught by the Israeli Defense Forces on patrol, and is roughed up and humiliated. The incident leads Amjad to join another childhood friend, Nadia’s militant brother Tarek (Eyad Hourani), for some rifle practice at the edge of town. Soon, Omar and Amjad find themselves participating in a plot to kill a randomly chosen Israeli soldier.
And almost immediately, Omar gets picked up by the Israelis as a suspect. After a brief, nasty torture scene, his real troubles begin as he falls under the power of an apparently affable Israeli intelligence officer, Rami (a standout performance from Palestinian-American actor Waleed Zuaiter, one of the film’s producers), who masterfully plays on Omar’s fear of never seeing Nadia again. A lawyer tells Omar he faces 90 years in jail unless he agrees to work with the Israelis; Omar has a month to deliver Tarek to them.
But as Abu-Assad’s script elucidates, this is a cruel game that everyone knows from long practice. Omar’s early release signals to the Palestinians that he has cut a deal, and, in turn, they decide to use it as an opportunity for another ambush.
Once again, Omar gets caught, and manages to convince Rami he has really learned his lesson and will do the Israeli’s bidding, in exchange for future immunity. By now, relations with his community, including his beloved Nadia, have become so clouded with paranoia that there is no way forward. It’s the story of a political trap caught in a narrative one, and Abu-Assad goes on a little too long as he subjects Omar to a couple of more betrayals and bad luck.
With the exception of Zuaiter, the cast consists of attractive non-professional actors, with mixed results. They occasionally sound flatly recitative in the dialogue-heavy scenes, but the raw actors are effective in suggesting the inexperience of youths who serve as pawns for military players on both sides.
All this wraps in a blunt shocker of an ending, though ultimately, Omar’s larger achievement is to wrap its politics in familiar Hollywood genres known to the rest of the world. One part is a doomed love story with echoes of Romeo and Juliet and the 1951 melodrama A Place in the Sun (one of the films Abu-Assad says he watched before shooting Omar). It’s also a fatalistic Mideast film noir, with an apparently all-knowing Israeli intelligence force and chases on foot through ancient narrow alleys and army-patrolled streets of the West Bank.
Whether Omar will ultimately serve to change or harden hearts remains ambiguous, though it’s a movie that’s entertaining enough to appeal to the kinds of ordinary kids we see in the movie.