Wrestling with someone who has a gun. Trusting anyone in prison. Becoming a snitch—or, worse, trying to play both sides. All bad ideas, and all of which are present in Omar, Palestinian director Hany Abu-Assad’s Oscar-nominated drama about three lifelong friends who decide to become freedom fighters in the West Bank. Or are they terrorists? The subject is as divisive as the wall that separates Omar's bakery in Israel from his friends on the other side.
Omar (Adam Bakri) is a fierce if quiet militant and a charismatic romantic, longing for the hand of Nadia (Leem Lubany), the younger sister of Tarek (Iyad Hoorani), the strict and intimidating planner of the trio’s Israeli ambushes. The third friend is Amjad (Samer Bisharat), the most hesitant but easily swayed of the three regarding their violent intentions and who also pines for Nadia. When Tarek believes they are suitably trained to kill an Israeli soldier, it’s Amjad who’s forced to pull the trigger. Omar’s the one eventually captured, however, tortured and jailed until he’s cajoled into delivering Tarek in exchange for his freedom.
But is it truly freeing to become an informant on your best friend? When told, “If you don’t work for us, your life will be hell forever, and so will your girlfriend’s,” it may seem the lesser evil. When Omar is released, though, the film becomes a guessing game of what his intentions are, whether his friends are really playing him, and if even the innocent-seeming Nadia is keeping “secrets” as Omar’s jailer claimed.
Abu-Assad, whose 2005 Paradise Now was also nominated for an Academy Award, impressively balances his story so it’s both politically specific and humanly universal. Omar, Tarek, and Amjad interact easily, constantly joking regardless of the topic's solemnity. (And they’re actually funny.) Omar and Nadia’s stolen moments are sweet, though their dialogue is a bit too Hallmark-y at times. Even viewers unfamiliar with the conflicts in the region can still understand what's at stake.
Yet tension is a steady presence, from the opening scene of Omar climbing the wall, hands bleeding from rope burns, and being shot at, to foot chases that are so frequent that the film could be named Run Omar Run. (Though only in a film could someone race around the corners of narrow alleys without slamming into a few walls.) Bakri, in nearly every scene, is assured in his performance even when Omar is weighing what’s true and doubting his answers. If Abu-Assad wins Palestine a gold statue, he won’t be Omar’s only winner.