For such a razor-sharp thriller, the West Bank-set Omar smuggles a dense packet of ambiguity into its compact running time. This shouldn’t be a rarity, given how many stories there are about the conflict between occupiers and occupied, the dueling taxonomy of “freedom fighters” and “terrorists.” But too often these clashes are related in absolutes, where one narrative is bought into more than another. Hany Abu-Assad’s skillful story wrestles with those grey moralities without spoon-feeding one or the other to the audience. It’s a story about people, not ideologies, but it knows how inextricably the former intertwine with the latter.
In the world of Omar (Adam Bakri), nothing is simple. A baker by trade, with the watchful eyes and firecracker emotions of the poet, he just wants to marry his sweetheart, Nadia (Leem Lubany). But just to get to her, he has to climb one of the several story-tall concrete seaparation walls that slash through his part of the West Bank. After risking getting shot on the wall, he must screw up the courage to ask Nadia’s brooding brother Tarek (Eyad Hourani) for her hand. But Omar’s swooning, hearts-and-flowers courtship for Nadia — those scenes shot in tight and restrained closeup, where each millimeter of expression feels momentous — is just part of the story.
When first introduced, Tarek, Omar, and their childhood friend Amjad (Samer Bisharat) are planning something to get the attention of the local militant brigades. The soulful Omar who sneaks love stories in notes to Nadia and is almost too shy to talk to her, is the same Omar who steals and drives the getaway car so that Tarek and Amjad can gun down an Israeli soldier and dash off into the night. The next time we see Omar, it’s as though nothing as happened. The soldier may as well have been one of those ants he converses with in the long stints in solitary confinement that follow. This might have been his first “operation” but he already has the hardened core of a longtime militant.
The Israeli net of surveillance and informants is so interwoven through the clumped and overcrowded Palestinian neighborhoods that Omar has barely failed to register what has happened before he’s thrown into jail. After a couple of sessions with his interrogator Rami (Waleed F. Zuaiter, one of the few actors in the film with a pedigree), Omar has been expertly pretzeled into a position where he’s facing either a 90-year sentence and the ruination of Nadia or being sent back into the West Bank as an informant. He has one, soul-twisting mission from Rami: Bring me the head of Tarek.
Omar starts and ends with a killing. But although the middle is taken up with an expertly taut interlocking of chases, compromises, and betrayals, it’s less a film about violent men and their missions as it is about Omar’s place in the world, or lack of one. Some of the film’s most resonant scenes are about him being caught between places or fighting to cross over. Even when not heaving himself over the separation walls, he is always ducking through alleys or clambering over the half-constructed walls that litter the dense and ramshackle urban landscape. In one scene, a terrified man suspected by Tarek’s militants of being an informant screams that he did it because “the sea is here, just 15 kilometers away … I’ve never seen it.” He’s like the rest of the Palestinians in the film, locked in tight by walls and anger and social stricture. It’s a poisonous kind of claustrophobia they live in, though one that Abu-Assad (Paradise Now) crisply shoots not in noir-ish shadows but spotlight-bright Mediterranean sun. Just as Tarek and potentially the audience become convinced that the man must have been an informant, Omar reminds Tarek that people will say anything when they’re being tortured.
Abu-Assad has a skill for delivering tension and empathy in equal measure that’s put to good use throughout this swift-moving and all-around cracking-good film. Omar starts as a character-based thriller and moves inexorably towards tragedy, building momentum with several dips into Shakespearean tragedy along the way before exploding with a final twenty minutes filled with one head-snapping surprise after another. It makes you consider the morality of each character’s actions in the context of their surroundings while not robbing them of their humanity. At one point, Rami snaps at Omar, “Don’t look at me, I didn’t make you do it.” Like the suspected informant, Omar does have choices; it’s just that from where he’s standing, they all seem to be bad ones.