An inversion of all its shadowy, snakelike alleyways, the key image in writer-director Hany Abu-Assad's "Omar" is the high, narrow, forbidding concrete wall separating the title character, a Palestinian baker who's also a militant and a sniper, from the young woman he loves.
This is life in the West Bank under occupation. Nadia, who lives in and attends school in the same town on the divide's other side, has captured the heart of Omar, as well as Omar's fellow revolutionary, Amjad. Nadia happens also to be the younger sister of Tarek, Omar's friend and colleague.
All three men devote their energies to retaliatory violence in the name of the cause. Early in "Omar," which is up for this year's foreign language Academy Award, the friends engage in target practice before setting out to shoot an armed Israeli border guard. From there the film, which plays like updated, can't-win film noir, follows an exciting if necessarily fatalistic path toward honor and dishonor among righteous killers.
"There's a price to pay if you want to revolt and liberate your country," says Tarek, played by Eyad Hourani. With one major exception the performers in "Omar" are new to film, and their freshness compensates for the occasional broad stroke. Adam Bakri is Omar, the watchful center of the storm. Captured by the Israeli police, Omar is imprisoned and becomes a pawn in a game run by an agent (Waleed F. Zuaiter, the cast's notable professional actor). This agent wants Omar to give up Tarek in exchange for his freedom. But what is that worth, when everyone in Omar's life believes him to be a double-dealing fatality in the making?
As the figurative walls close in on Omar, Abu-Assad's procedural makes vivid use of the literal ones, along with the alleys and cul-de-sacs of the cramped West Bank village. As was his "Paradise Now," which addressed the motives and lives of suicide bombers, Abu-Assad's latest has been accused of anti-Israeli bias. Perhaps, but if "Omar" has a limitation it's not that, exactly; it's more about the convenience of the plotting and the seamless slickness of the visual technique. Also, one doesn't get the sense of a fully formed, many-textured romance at the heart of the picture, no matter how luminous Leem Lubany's Nadia looks in close-up after close-up.
Even with those limitations "Omar" is worth seeing. It affords its subject no easy answers. In any occupation thriller with half a brain, that's as it should be.
"Omar" - 3 stars
No MPAA rating (violence)
Running time: 1:38
Opens: Friday at Landmark Century Centre Cinema and Highland Park Renaissance. In Arabic and Hebrew with English subtitles.