Hany Abu-Assad’s smart thriller “Omar,” which has been nominated for the Best Foreign-Language Oscar, is like a modern-day “Romeo
& Juliet” tale, if Romeo were a double agent in the middle of the West
Every day Omar (Adam Bakri) climbs the separation wall in
the Occupied Territories — risking, if not life, then limb and freedom — to see
Nadia, the woman he loves, who is also the younger sister of his best friend,
Tarek. By day Omar bakes bread for a living. But by night he, Tarek and their
other best friend Amjad train as freedom fighters — or terrorists. When the three shoot and
kill a soldier, Omar is hunted down by Israeli agents and thrown into a hellish
prison, where his only hope of escaping a 90-year sentence is effectively agreeing
to spy and rat on his friends. This is all masterminded by a sharp cop (a very good
Waleed Zuaiter, who in appearance and demeanor recalls a hunkier version of
Mandy Patinkin’s Saul Berenson from “Homeland”).
What follows is a taut guessing game: Has Omar in fact collaborated with the Israeli agents? Or is he pretending to play their game while
actually playing them? One of the joys of watching “Omar” is that we get the
sense that, from minute to minute, Omar himself doesn’t fully know the answer
to these questions.
And this indeed is the thesis at the heart of the film.
Occupation breeds paranoia, betrayal and deception. It also breeds doubt: Of
one’s self, of the values one thought once were right, and of those nearest and
Abu-Assad has an admirable economy to his directing style,
and generally keeps in balance the film’s quick-footed action with its more
melodramatic elements. The best sequences show Omar racing through the
Territories’ streets and back alleys, with agents in hot pursuit, as if the
city has become a lethal jungle gym he must navigate with dicey hops, skips and
jumps. A recurring image is that of Omar scaling the separation wall — at first
with agility, but as the devastating narrative wears on, it’s a barrier that
saps his strength little by little, until all he can do is sob at the foot of
its looming and inexorable presence.
“Omar” hits theaters February 21, via Adopt Films.