In Hany Abu-Assad's “Omar,” Adam Bakri delivers an assured, charismatic performance as the title character, a young Palestinian man living in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, where he must navigate a vertiginous separation wall and checkpoints simply to visit friends. (“Omar” is the second film from the Palestinian territories to be nominated for an Academy Award; Abu-Assad's brilliant “Paradise Now” was nominated in 2006.)
The daily life of violence and humiliation are eloquently conveyed in Abu-Assad's portrait of West Bank life; and it provides the context, if not justification, for the fact that when Omar meets with his friends, Tarek (Iyad Hoorani) and Amjad (Samer Bisharat), they're plotting to kill Israeli soldiers. “Omar” thus obeys the conventions of the most tragic plot trajectories, here given extra Shakespearean pathos with the addition of a fateful romantic triangle involving Tarek's fetching young sister, Nadia (Leem Lubany).
Abu-Assad also directed the wonderful drama “Rana's Wedding,” so it's no surprise that “Omar” has been scrupulously crafted; he evinces a particularly impressive touch with the chase scenes that punctuate this psychological-political thriller. Bakri, a relative newcomer to the big screen, does a superb job of carrying a film in which he appears in nearly every scene; with his baleful expression and chiseled good looks, he succeeds in winning near-instant sympathy from the audience, even when his actions are lamentably impulsive and thoughtless. He also skillfully handles the dark humor that courses through “Omar,” whose characters can be relied on to respond to even the most infuriating indignities with mordant one-liners.
It's because Abu-Assad is such a good director that viewers will want more from “Omar,” which grows exponentially more complicated as the hidden agendas and betrayals pile up, but still manages to be shockingly simplistic and reductive when it comes to the film's central relationship, between Omar and an Israeli intelligence officer with whom he crosses paths. Especially in light of last year's brilliant documentary “The Gatekeepers,” that story line feels thin and woefully under-developed. The result is that “Omar” feels as trapped and enmeshed in hopelessness as the vicious political cycle it depicts.
Palestinian life may not always be “planting hope and social responsibility,” as one optimistic billboard proclaims in the background of one scene, but we're long past due for a film that doesn't turn in on itself with bitterness, revenge and reflexive violence. Impotent rage is understandable and can even be cathartic, but there are so many more stories to tell.
Two and a half stars. Unrated. Contains adult themes and scenes of violence and torture. In Arabic with subtitles. 98 minutes.
Ratings Guide: Four stars masterpiece, three stars very good, two stars OK, one star poor, no stars waste of time.