Three friends commit an act of violence that will have repercussions on the rest of their lives. That’s the basic plot setup of Palestinian director Hany Abu-Assad’s “Omar.” That could describe any number of films noir, but “Omar” gains political resonance from the fact that the protagonists are young Palestinian men and the man they kill is Israeli. The stakes in betraying your friends are higher when you consider yourself a “freedom fighter” and much of the world would instead call you a “terrorist.” “Omar” threatens at points to become a simple genre film, but the context won’t let it.
Omar (Adam Bakri) frequently climbs the West Bank’s separation walls in order to more easily meet his girlfriend Nadia (Leem Lubany). But at home, the baker takes up arms against the Israeli occupation. He and two of his friends, Amjad (Samer Bisharat) and Tarek (Iyad Hourani), shoot an Israeli soldier one night. Omar is captured and tricked into saying, “I will never confess,” which is apparently as good as a confession. Upon meeting with agent Rami (Waleed F. Zuaiter), he weighs his options and decides to take a chance by working for the Israeli government. However, his highest priority is reuniting with Nadia. To make matters more complicated, she’s Tarek’s sister.
“Omar” is a highly physical film. Its first scene shows Omar climbing a rope over a West Bank separation wall. After landing on the other side of the wall, Omar’s hands are bloody. That sets up a pattern for the rest of the film: the character is used as a punching bag. He’s tortured by Israeli cops — although the worst of this is suggested rather than shown — and hit on the nose by Israeli soldiers. Even Palestinians take aim at Omar’s face. While Abu-Assad isn’t a master of spatial continuity, he stages several action scenes in which Omar goes on the run. But violence breeds violence, and when Omar has a chance, he responds in kind.
The West Bank landscapes of “Omar” are filled with billboards touting aspirational messages. This is a bitterly ironic joke — often, they overlook areas resembling garbage dumps. The Palestinian locations here remind one of the views of a devastated Italy, shot just after World War II, in Vittorio de Sica’s “Bicycle Thieves” and Roberto Rossellini’s “Rome, Open City” and “Paisan.” The whole West Bank may as well have an “under construction” sign hovering over it. The presence of the separation wall, although not necessarily a barrier to the characters getting around, only makes matters worse — it’s ugly, covered in graffiti, and usually surrounded by rubble. Abu-Assad has a flair for close-ups of faces, but his greatest achievement as a director may be making the West Bank look so expressively scarred.
“Omar” is bound to be misread by some as an ode to murdering Israelis. I don’t think that’s what the film is attempting to say at all, but it conveys the complexity of violence without reducing its characters to good guys and bad guys. Omar, Amjad, and Tarek don’t question the legitimacy of armed resistance to the Israeli government. One can sympathize with their anger at the daily humiliations it puts them through and still balk at their decision to kill a soldier. Rami emerges a full human being, with a family and problems of his own, although curiously, he, the only major Israeli character in the film, is played (quite well) by a Palestinian-American actor.
Abu-Assad first came to international prominence and wide American distribution with “Paradise Now,” a 2005 film about two Palestinian suicide bombers that played like an introduction to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. “Omar” is a superior film because it’s more complicated. In the end, it’s more original than it seems. Recreating the struggles of “On the Waterfront” or Jean-Pierre Melville’s “Le Doulos” on the West Bank is a way of both honoring those models and expressing the vast differences between them and present-day Palestine.
OMAR | Directed by Hany Abu-Assad | In Arabic with English subtitles | Adopt Films | Opens Feb. 21 | Angelika Film Center & Café, 18 W. Houston St. at Mercer St. | angelikafi