'Omar' (unrated)

 

An absorbing, surprising thriller, set in the West Bank.

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By Rene Rodriguez rrodriguez@MiamiHerald.com

In the Oscar-nominated Omar, writer-director Hany Abu-Assad, who previously explored the phenomena of suicide bombers in Paradise Now, returns to the West Bank for another story about the heartbreaking toll of the Israel-Palestine conflict. The tall and handsome Omar (Adam Bakri) works as a baker and regularly climbs the separation wall, dodging bullets by Israeli guards, in order to hang out with his buddies Amjad (Samer Bisharat) and Tarek (Eyad Hourani) and secretly woo the latter’s sister Nadia (Leem Lubany), who is still in high school.

Omar also goes target shooting with his two friends, practicing with a sniper rifle for an unspecified act of rebellion they have hatched: Like so many young Palestinian men their age, they have grown up with romanticized visions of freedom fighters and resistance forces, and fighting back against the enemy, in however small a manner, is ingrained in them.

Abu-Assad present the men’s thirst for payback for the Occupation as just another facet of their personalities. They’re a funny, warm and likable trio: They simply don’t think of killing an Israeli soldier for no reason as murder. Eventually, they pull off their plan — Amjad pulls the trigger and smiles in victory when he hits his target — but their celebration is cut short when Israeli forces respond swiftly and brutally, and Omar is taken into custody, where he’s tortured and beaten but refuses to confess. So the Israeli agents come up with another idea.

The rest of Omar, which could have easily been a piece of manipulative agitprop, manages to remain apolitical even as the stakes rise and the motives of individual characters become blurred. Bakri is terrific at depicting Omar’s increasing weariness as his situation worsens, and he gradually starts to suspect everyone, even the friends he trusts most. His love for Nadia keeps him going — they have a habit of exchanging stories in small folded pieces of paper — and there is a genuine tenderness to their affair, which might have felt like a plot device in a lesser movie. Instead, it gives the film a warm emotional center.

Like most movies about the Middle East conflict, Omar is ultimately about the futility of violence and how it feeds on itself. Political motivations curdle into blind hatred; lies and betrayals destroy close relationships; and in the case of the happy, spirited Omar, rage threatens to consume him, potentially robbing him of his humanity. The message of the film’s shocking final shot could be interpreted in different ways, but there’s never a question Abu-Assad sees this story as, first and foremost, a great tragedy in which there are no winners.

Cast: Adam Bakri, Leem Lubany, Waleed F. Zuaiter, Samer Bisharat, Eyad Hourani.

Writer-director: Hany Abu-Assad.

Producers: Hany Abu-Assad, Waleed F. Zuaiter, David Gerson.

An Adopt Films release. Running time: 96 minutes. In Hebrew and Arabic with English subtitles. Vulgar language, nudity, violence, torture, adult themes. Opens Friday Feb. 21 in Miami-Dade only: Coral Gables Art Cinema.

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