Tenderness, suspicion propel Oscar-nominated Omar

Palestinian director Hany Abu-Assad is one of the most important filmmakers working today, thanks to his emphasis on humanity over political screeds, and individuality over dogma.

A major theme in his work is the destructive impact of the occupation on young Palestinians. With limited options, violence is a perennial path, but the men with the weapons are anything but faceless in Abu-Assad’s films.

Adam Bakri as Omar

The director’s 2005 Oscar-nominated drama, “Paradise Now,” stirred up controversy for humanizing a suicide bomber. In fact, it is a thoughtful, credible exploration of what might drive an intelligent, albeit impressionable, young man to desperate action.

“Omar,” which has earned Abu-Assad a second shot at the Academy Award for best foreign language film, revolves around three childhood friends on the cusp of adulthood who shoot an Israeli soldier. The title character’s struggle to preserve the essential values of love and loyalty amid an ensuing slipstream of arrests, betrayals and paranoia comprises the heart and soul of this remarkable film.

A riveting thriller that emphasizes character over plot, “Omar” opens Friday, Feb. 21 in San Francisco, San Rafael and Berkeley.

Omar is saving his pita-baking earnings in hopes of marrying Nadia, the sister of his pal Tarek. The third friend (and fourth wheel), Amjad, also carries a torch for Nadia but his homely looks seemingly put him out of the running.

Parents are nowhere to be seen, but these smiling, well-behaved young people are anything but thugs. So it’s shocking that they would plot to steal a car and murder a soldier.

Perhaps their fathers are in prison, or dead. We’re never told, and it doesn’t matter. We’ve reached  the point where backstory and justification are no longer necessary in movies about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Sadly, this may be a reflection of real life.

The occupation — the separation barrier, checkpoints, army presence, undercover agents, arrests, interrogations — is the only reality that anyone in “Omar” has ever known. Consequently, the film implies, resistance is ingrained, and inevitable.

Omar is arrested, beaten and questioned, even though he didn’t boost the car or pull the trigger. Facing a 90-year sentence, and alternately threatened and cajoled by an Israeli intelligence officer, he reluctantly agrees to become an informant.

He has no intention of turning on his friends, though, and they concoct a plan to thwart their enemy. It fails disastrously, costing Omar the trust of the Israeli intelligence ops and the Palestinian community. (The film was shot mostly in Nablus and Nazareth.)

Omar’s clandestine courtship of Nadia is derailed by rumors that he’s a traitor. Although her affection for him had been unabashed, now she’s no longer willing to be seen in public with him, and she isn’t sure who or what to believe.

“Omar” is not a nihilistic movie; in fact, the key moment in the film is a tentative, tender kiss. But it barely bothers to pay lip service to the comforting fantasy that Israelis and Palestinians can find common ground.

On the contrary, the false confidence that characters can easily cross over is a subtle, recurring motif.

For example, the Israeli officer speaks fluent Arabic and thinks he can pass among Palestinians.

And when we first meet Omar, he climbs over the separation barrier as if it’s a picket fence. In fact, freedom of movement is as much an illusion as a peaceful, happy future.

“Omar” plays out most palpably on the main character’s face, which becomes colder and fiercer as events proceed. Adam Bakri does a stellar job of showing a boy growing up before our eyes, radicalized by the unwitting Israelis and hardened by untrusting Palestinians.

Omar’s hopes and dreams may die in this cauldron, but not his will. “Omar” leaves us in a somber mood but not despairing, and that is some kind of miracle.

“Omar” opens Friday, Feb. 21 at the Clay in San Francisco, the Shattuck in Berkeley,the Camera 3 in San Jose, and the Smith Rafael Film Center in San Rafael. In Hebrew and Arabic, with English subtitles. (Unrated. 98 minutes)