"Omar," an Oscar nominee for Best Foreign-Language Film this year, is a smart and suspenseful thriller that proves a filmmaker doesn't need "Independence Day"-like explosions to build interest and excitement. All the fireworks you need can be supplied by human emotion.
The latest movie from Palestinian director Hany Abu-Assad, whose "Paradise Now" won the Golden Globe for a foreign-language film in 2006, "Omar" uses the incendiary politics of the Middle East as a backdrop for a compelling story that juggles issues of deception and betrayal. That it's also a vehicle for an impressive contingent of promising young actors makes it all the more remarkable.
Adam Bakri is Omar, a young Palestinian baker in the West Bank who decides - along with a couple of his childhood friends, Amjad (Samer Bisharat) and Tarek (Iyad Hoorani) - to strike a blow against the Israelis by ambushing an Israeli soldier. It's not something they've really thought through, which is why Israeli agent Rami (Waleed Zuaiter, from the TV series "Revolution") catches Omar so quickly.
After having Omar beaten and tortured, Rami promises to let him go on one condition: that he become a double agent and get Omar's accomplices to implicate themselves or others involved in armed resistance. But many in the West Bank community - even his adoring girlfriend, Nadia (Leem Lubany) - no longer trust Omar. Why would he be let out if he hadn't cut a deal?
Omar seems to be playing his own long game, and it's this electric tension between his divided loyalties that arcs through Omar like a lightning bolt. Bakri, in his major-role debut, turns in a performance that is at once athletic (when he's being chased through the streets of Nablus and Nazareth, he has to scale walls like he's playing parkour) and emotional. And Abu-Assad directs with an assured hand that keeps the focus squarely on the characters.
The somber "Omar" isn't as controversial as "Paradise Now," a film that raised hackles by focusing on two suicide bombers, but it too gets behind the TV news bulletins to discreetly put a human face on what is often, for those outside the region, just more electronic noise. Sometimes it's the quietest voices that are really the loudest.
4 stars (out of 5)
Unrated (violence, including scenes of torture); 98 min.
In Arabic and Hebrew with English subtitles.