Betrayal in myriad forms is at the core of “Omar,” the Oscar-nominated film by Palestinian writer-director Hany Abu-Assad, ranging from betrayal of a most personal sort to betrayal on a national level. And while one might certainly debate how persuasive the non-fictional implications of the story are, it’s difficult not to be moved by the fictional narrative that leads to them.
The title character is a young Palestinian (Adam Bakri), a baker by trade who regularly suffers humiliation under Israeli occupation, not least the necessity of dodging bullets as he climbs over a security wall in order to visit the home of Tarek (Eyad Hourani), whose sister Nadja (Leem Lubany) he loves. But there’s another reason for Omar’s determination to make such a dangerous journey: he, Tarek and their friend Amjad (Samer Bisharat) are part of a Palestinian resistance group, and they have decided to kill a soldier manning an Israeli check-point as an act of protest and revenge.
The operation succeeds, but the Israelis quickly retaliate, taking Omar into custody after a wild street chase the very next day. He’s strung up and tortured, and while he claims he will never confess, that’s taken as an admission of guilt by Rami (Waleed F. Zuaiter), the soft-spoken agent assigned to interrogate him. Rami offers him a deal: Omar will be released in exchange for delivering Tarek, whom the authorities assume to have been the sniper, though the shot was actually fired by Amjad.
Omar agrees to the arrangement but doesn’t intend to fulfill it, instead joining in another resistance mission. It goes terribly wrong, however, making it clear they’ve been betrayed, though it’s not evident by whom, or why. When Rami is cajoled by Omar, again a prisoner, to give him a second chance to cooperate, his intent is to discover who the traitor is. His efforts reveal how even the closest friends—and lovers—can make decisions that seem incomprehensible in terms of the damage they do even to those closest to them.
The interactions among Omar, Tarek, Amjad and Nadja make up the essence of the film, and Abu-Assad portrays them skillfully—melodramatically when appropriate, but with touches of gallows humor and quiet affection as well. The performances by the youngsters—all of them newcomers without screen experience—are all natural and compelling. The supporting players are fine, too, especially Zuaiter, whose cool yet determined manner evinces Rami’s effectiveness at his job.
Rami, however, is not merely an individual; he personifies the policy of the Israeli state, and its ruthlessness in suppressing what it perceives as a deadly threat to its very existence. Though the film doesn’t make the point explicitly, through its gritty, uncompromising portrayal of reality on the ground in the occupied territories, it implicitly accuses Israel of betrayal as well—of its humanistic founding principles. Apart from Rami, who’s presented as calculating and cunning, virtually all of the Israelis portrayed in the film are depicted as brutal caricatures, particularly the soldiers who take delight in mistreating Palestinians who are merely trying to get from home to work. The political perspective of “Omar” is one-sided in the extreme, which is perhaps understandable but is nonetheless dramatically disconcerting.
Abu-Assad bookends the film with sequences involving the security wall over which Omar climbs. By doing so he suggests that the divisions that it—and the policy it represents—create cover not only the landscape, but the relationships among the Palestinians it’s meant to control. And the abrupt conclusion offers no hope that the situation will improve. To the contrary, by forcing the viewer to imagine what will inevitably follow, the denouement conveys the message that things are just going to get worse.