There is a giant metaphor sitting in the Occupied West Bank, in the shape of a wall. That isn’t meant to diminish the massive, real-world impact that the wall has on the inhabitants on either side, mind you. It’s simply that the enormous Israeli barrier, bisecting the lands and lives of the people around it, is an extraordinary symbol. Like that of Cold War Berlin, it stands as a powerful representation of something, though what that may be depends on the artist. And few have handled it quite like Hany Abu-Assad.
Omar, Abu-Assad’s second Oscar-nominated feature, is the story of a young man stuck in the middle. The titular Omar (Adam Bakri) is linked with the wall from the very beginning. He climbs up and down with just a sturdy rope, commuting (illegally) between his home neighborhood in the West Bank and the bakery where he works. The first act of the film follows his small-time scheme, with friends Amjad (Samer Bisharat) and Tarek (Iyad Hoorani), to shoot an Israeli soldier. All of them are inexperienced and thrilled by the prospect of striking the army, though Tarek emerges as the one with the most ties to the big leagues of organized Palestinian resistance. Complicating all of this is Omar’s chastely passionate relationship with Tarek’s younger sister Nadia (Leema Lubany), inching its way from pecks on the cheek to a proposal of marriage.
In the beginning the tension is simple enough. Omar is afraid that Tarek will object to his love of Nadia, for him a much bigger concern than the prospect of getting caught by the Israelis. The folly of youth is tied here to a sense of freedom, even if it is one constantly hemmed in by the occupation. Omar isn’t just good at getting over the wall, he’s good at getting everywhere. Abu-Assad follows him from rooftop to rooftop, flying through a cramped urban landscape with ease. To Western audiences this may suggest anything from Pépé le Moko to The Battle of Algiers, stories of revolutionaries (or criminals, depending on who you ask) that thrive on a very physical and spatial independence. His happiness, his success, his entire relationship with life is presented through movement, which becomes Abu-Assad’s principal visual idea.
And so, when Omar does get found out and taken in by the Israelis, the focus of the film immediately shifts from youthful romantic drama to existential crisis. Our first images of his captivity are brutal and dark, a chamber in the depths of an IDF prison where the inmates are interrogated with an immediately striking sort of violence and disregard. If simply living in the occupied West Bank was too much for Omar (he and Nadia have planned a Paris honeymoon, perhaps a New Zealand life), this facility is the unfathomable extreme. There’s basically no good way out, either. Omar has two options. Either he sits in a cell, taking a principled stand on his imprisonment and waiting for the law to change, or he cooperates with the Israelis. Sit and rot, or become a double agent.
What might seem like a difficult choice is actually pretty inevitable. Abu-Assad has created a character that can only exist if he can move, so it’s no surprise when Omar accepts the offer made by his cynical Israeli handler, Agent Rami (Waleed Zuaiter). In an instant he’s back outside, and we’re off into act two of what has suddenly become a very different story.
The rest of the film basically derives from Omar’s attempts to restore his freedom, now encroached upon by basically everyone. The intricacies of his actions, trying to play both sides of the wall, are best left to the film itself. Yet what can be said is that Omar’s new position throws a number of things into relief. It isn’t just our hero that is affected by the hemming in of space in the West Bank, but the entire system. Decisions are made because people feel cramped, surrounded. There is a desperation, a suspension of what we might consider peace-time morality. This is true of everyone involved, be they Palestinians intent on firing at Israelis or Israeli army officials intent on arresting or disappearing their opponents. It is a system full of contradiction, and everyone lies in order to either win or escape. Omar’s arguments with Agent Rami are the best example of this, expertly written scenes of heavy dialogue that show how sometimes the only difference between falsehood and “strategy” is a sense of moral authority.
This makes it perhaps appropriate that the film’s biggest weakness also comes out of the discomfort of feeling cramped. The bad decisions of these characters inevitably turn into melodrama, which is hardly a problem. That seems to be Abu-Assad’s outline, that a system that oppresses physical space will create first desperation and dishonesty, then melodrama, and finally violence. The problem is simply that the last act feels too cramped itself. The final third of the film has a great many twists and turns, dramatic plot shifts that need a bit more narrative breathing space. It begins to feel like an epic crammed into 90 minutes, particularly given how perfectly Abu-Assad has paced the first two thirds. The metaphors of movement and space are strong on their own, without the need to include the audience in the discomfort.
The Upside: An expertly written fable of occupation and captivity; a riveting central performance; some thrilling visual ideas
The Downside: Perhaps too taken in by its own interest in expressing cramped space and time; the last melodramatic act feels much too rushed
On the Side: Hany Abu-Assad is the only Palestinian filmmaker to be nominated in the Best Foreign Language Film category at the Oscars. This is his second nomination, after 2005′s Paradise Now.