By Beth Hanna | Thompson on Hollywood February 18, 2014 at 11:35AM
Hany Abu-Assad’s smart thriller “Omar,” which has been nominated for the Best Foreign-Language Oscar, is like a modern-day “Romeo & Juliet” tale, if Romeo were a double agent in the middle of the West Bank.
Every day Omar (Adam Bakri) climbs the separation wall in the Occupied Territories -- risking, if not life, then limb and freedom -- to see Nadia, the woman he loves, who is also the younger sister of his best friend, Tarek. By day Omar bakes bread for a living. But by night he, Tarek and their other best friend Amjad train as freedom fighters -- or terrorists. When the three shoot and kill a soldier, Omar is hunted down by Israeli agents and thrown into a hellish prison, where his only hope of escaping a 90-year sentence is effectively agreeing to spy and rat on his friends. This is all masterminded by a sharp cop (a very good Waleed Zuaiter, who in appearance and demeanor recalls a hunkier version of Mandy Patinkin’s Saul Berenson from “Homeland”).
What follows is a taut guessing game: Has Omar in fact collaborated with the Israeli agents? Or is he pretending to play their game while actually playing them? One of the joys of watching “Omar” is that we get the sense that, from minute to minute, Omar himself doesn’t fully know the answer to these questions.
And this indeed is the thesis at the heart of the film. Occupation breeds paranoia, betrayal and deception. It also breeds doubt: Of one’s self, of the values one thought once were right, and of those nearest and dearest.
Abu-Assad has an admirable economy to his directing style, and generally keeps in balance the film’s quick-footed action with its more melodramatic elements. The best sequences show Omar racing through the Territories’ streets and back alleys, with agents in hot pursuit, as if the city has become a lethal jungle gym he must navigate with dicey hops, skips and jumps. A recurring image is that of Omar scaling the separation wall -- at first with agility, but as the devastating narrative wears on, it’s a barrier that saps his strength little by little, until all he can do is sob at the foot of its looming and inexorable presence.
“Omar” hits theaters February 21, via Adopt Films.