One country’s terrorist is another country’s freedom fighter. Well, it should go without saying that there is a meaningful story on the foreign side of any equation. Suicide bombers don’t spontaneously spring into existence, the product of some inexplicable savagery. There is a system, a most likely desperate narrative that leads there.
That said, Hany Abu-Assad’s gripping drama and his second Oscar nominee, "Omar," isn’t really a plea for fair-mindedness. Yes, this is a film whose central character is a stunningly beautiful, sincere, and brazen Palestinian who is an unflinching member of the resistance against Israeli occupation. However, Abu-Assad is not making a political argument here; there is no dissection of the persisting conflict. This is a film consisting of personal stories, and the director expects that you can sympathize with Omar’s (Adam Bakri) plight.
We are first introduced to Omar’s litheness (he jumps dividing walls to visit his friends) and his jocularity with his mates. Then, through quick cross cutting across glances, we understand that he is secretly in love with friend Tarek’s sister, Nadia (Leem Lubany), who serves the male trio tea, and, with Omar’s tea, a folded note. Soon we learn that he is an avid writer of imaginative notes for her, and they relish each other’s smitten responses in the stolen moments and loaded flirtations on side roads and under overpasses that they are allowed. Then, once we have a firm regard for Omar’s athleticism and his seeming sensitivity with Nadia, we learn that he and his buds are preparing for a shooting of an Israeli soldier. We even see a smile of boyish excitement on friend Amjad’s (Samer Bisharat) face after he pulls the trigger and succeeds at hitting their target.
What are we to make of these three, who are your average neighborhood guys, but caught up in the epic struggle of their homeland? Like a more somber or understated version of the dynamic minority male trio that made up "La Haine," that modern classic of racial resistance in the city slums, these three complement each other but also butt heads in some pretty serious ways. Tarek (Iyad Hoorani) is the serious leader, the one who puts the resistance ahead of friendship and has no qualms questioning the loyalty of Omar and Amjad. Omar is the lover, and Amjad is the comedian. However, love and comedy are troubled in this occupied territory, and all three are poised for some tough decisions as they endure the fallout from their attack.
Despite his adeptness at jumping from roofs and over walls, sprinting through alleyways, and dodging authorities in innumerable creative ways, Omar is captured and whisked away for torture and interrogation. He refuses to rat out his friends, yet he is tricked and coerced into working for an Israeli handler (Waleed F. Zuaiter) so as to avoid a lifetime of imprisonment. Here begins a complicated series of events in which Omar attempts to play the Israelis while keeping accusations of being a traitor at bay in his hometown, seeming to be foremost concerned with maintaining Nadia’s affection. There are times in which his intentions become ambiguous, and this is part of the suspense in this taut drama.
The camera work here punctuates the volatility of these lives without going overboard, and the cinematography is crisp and thoughtful. An outstanding art thriller, this is a film about a man who really just wants to love and to live his life but who is propelled into increasingly complex situations. He is imperfect -- sometimes goofy, sometimes brutal. Bakri’s acting makes Omar compelling and likable throughout his mistakes and tribulations, and he is particularly strong at rendering the painful emotions of a fighter torn by love.