“Omar,” one of this year’s nominees for the best foreign language Oscar, is set in the moral quagmire that is the occupied West Bank, and it’s told with a stark, pitiless clarity that leaves you with fewer answers than before. A pilgrim’s progress in reverse, it follows an idealistic young hero on a trajectory in which everything he knows and trusts is stripped away, and it suggests that this is simply what it means to be Palestinian in Israel. The movie lands like a punch.
The title character, Omar (played by a lanky, charismatic newcomer named Adam Bakri), is a baker in the West Bank and part of a small resistance cell made up of the grimly purposeful Tarek (Iyad Hoorani) and Omar’s childhood friend Ajmad (Samer Bisharat). The group has plans to shoot a random Israeli soldier, but Omar is more a lover than a fighter. When we meet Nadia (Leem Lubany), Tarek’s younger sister, we understand why. As the two meet furtively, exchange love letters, and dream about honeymoons in Paris, writer-director Hany Abu-Assad (2005 Oscar nominee “Paradise Now”) creates an aura of fragile romantic tenderness that turns intensely moving as it comes under siege.
Arrested by the Israeli Defense Force, Omar is beaten and presented with the standard offer: Inform on your colleagues, or else. Naively, he believes he can warn his friends, stall his Israeli handler, Rami (Waleed Zuaiter), and plan escape with Nadia. But “Omar” takes place in a paranoid society where every person has more than one overlapping agenda, a lesson the hero learns in the hardest way imaginable.
Abu-Assad establishes a mood of compressed anger and resentment early on, with a scene in which the upbeat Omar is humiliated by an IDF squadron. While the sense of oppression is palpable and sympathetic, “Omar” sees violence as leading only to more violence. The film is humanist instead of political, plot-driven rather than a polemic, and it moves like a thriller. The director has a knack for the telling image — more than once we see Omar perched atop a wall, belonging to both sides and neither — and the
director combines naturalism and melodrama in ways that complement each.
The movie presents a Kafkaesque universe where saying “I’ll never confess” serves as a confession and where the man who teaches you to betray becomes the only man you can trust. Zuaiter is a sly fox as Rami, but a scene in which he has to beg his mother over the phone to pick up his daughter from kindergarten humanizes him in our eyes and Omar’s. Everyone here wants desperately to live normal lives in a society that has long forgotten what normal looks like.