Hany Abu-Assad's Omar is the second Palestinian film to receive an Oscar nomination for Best Foreign Language Film. It's a good, entertaining movie, almost a pop movie, about the young man of the title, a baker in Palestine.
In the film's opening sequence, we see Omar climb one of the 20-feet-high walls that separate occupied Palestine from Israel to visit his close friends and the girl he loves, Nadia. Right away, there is an amusing, pointed reference to The Godfather. Nadia, a bright and charming teenager, is serving tea to her older brother, a resistance fighter named Tarek, and his two childhood friends, Amjad and Omar. Nadia offers tea to Amjad with one condition: that he do his Brando impression. The young actor (Samer Bisharat) produces a very funny Don Corleone grimace and rasp.
This scene situates the film in a modern, connected world—these Palestinians may have little political liberty, but they watch the same movies as the rest of us (and, we learn later, follow the same soccer teams). But the image of the famous bereaved crime patriarch also makes us fearful for the future of these kids, drawn on the Corleone personalities: Tarek/Sonny, Amjad/Fredo and Omar/Michael, along with Nadia/Connie, the sister of one and the crush of the other two.
But the plot is less Godfather than Rebel Without a Cause. Omar, played by the good-looking Israeli Arab actor Adam Bakri, is a skeptical wiseacre rather than a fighter. But like James Dean's nonconforming rebel, he gets caught up in an act of violence that makes him a wanted man. In this movie's case, the terrorist act they commit—the sniper killing of an Israeli soldier caught unaware inside his garrison—is such a stupid, tactically useless crime that it gets in the way of our sympathies for Omar and his comrades, however we might feel about the Palestinian plight.
It could be Abu-Assad's point, however, that young Arab lives are being wasted with such futile acts of defiance. While Omar, Amjad and Tarek are butting their heads against the brick wall of occupation, Nadia is doing something else: going to school. She's a little younger than the boys, who've perhaps exhausted their schooling options, but nonetheless, Nadia seems to believe that an education may help her get out. Unfortunately, the patriarchy that governs her life—where her brother has paternal authority over her—proves to be as much a threat to her dreams as the Israeli occupation.
The film tightens its grip as Omar is eventually fingered by authorities and tricked into making a quasi-confession by an Israeli investigator, Agent Rami (played by American actor Waleed Zuaiter). Rami subjects Omar to beatings during interrogation, long hours in solitary and pressures to turn in his friends. Here the movie moves into a rather conventional thriller, and it's not an especially distinguished one despite a few good chase scenes through narrow alleys. One issue that mars the film's credibility is that Rami proves to be a rather inept, unlikely member of one of the world's most efficient and ruthless security forces.
But the beauty of Omar is in the depth of feeling of the young actors, especially the handsome Bakri and the effortlessly charming Leem Lubany, who plays poor Nadia. These are rebels with a cause, but it's a cause that grinds one young life after another into dust.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Running against the wind."