Let’s do a thought experiment about a movie.  In it, an occupying army has a stranglehold on the local populace.  Young men are regularly rounded up. Some are tortured.  There are double agents, some coerced, some opportunistic.  Among the young men are three friends, since childhood.  They still do everything together, including harebrained acts of resistance, including killing a soldier.  One of the young men has a beautiful sister.  Both the friends are infatuated. One makes his moves, the other considers his options.  Betrayal is one of them: remove the favorite from the picture.  The cat’s cradle of loyalties and betrayals grows complicated.  The favored friend is hauled in by the enemy and tortured.  Perhaps he is turned to spy on his friends. Or is he?  The enemy handler, outside his role as torturer, is a decent guy.  His victim even seems to respond to him, and humans do.  The tension is torqued tight. The surprises are many. Our hopes for the young couple to escape the fate of thwarted lovers in an occupied country are high.

Let’s say the occupiers are Germans and the young men are French resistance abettors.  Or even, inner city police and young gang-bangers.  The chances are the film would be a big hit if contemporary, or a revered classic if from the nineteen forties. 

Movie OmarChange the nationalities however so the occupiers are Israelis and the young men are non-Hamas, non-Fatah Palestinian resisters and the chances of celebrating the film fall precipitously.  For Omar, (2013) all the normal judgments about such a film — a thriller, a cat-and-mouse story, fraught young love, double and triple betrayals– collapse against the outrage that an occupying country is being portrayed as such, that an Israeli could be shown, in a movie, as a torturer — even though Israel itself has admitted as much.  The SF Chronicle reviewer, Walter Addiego, says that the virtues of the political thriller “are overshadowed by a one-sided political message.”

My goodness.  A Palestinian director [] makes a genuine thriller about a place he knows well.  Chases through winding alleys, in and out of neighbors houses are standard fare for such movies.  We’ve all seen hundreds of good-guys and bad-guys tearing through kitchens, knocking over market stalls, jumping up and over high walls.  We’ve cheered for the underdog and wished bad things to the overdog.  Is such a setting and this filmic trope always a ‘message?’ Or only if it concerns Israel?

Given the ways a Palestinian might portray Israelis the characters in Omar are remarkably even-handed.  The ultimate betrayal in fact is between the Palestinian friends.  The closing killing, which Addiego seems not to get, is an act of pure desperation, an almost nihilistic act, born of loss at every level — not an act of courage or a celebration of resistance.  In fact, if there’s a message, given what will certainly happen to the shooter after the fatal shot, it’s that the two peoples, Israeli and Palestinian, are wrapped in a mutual suicide pact, not to be broken unless things start to change.

Omar is a remarkable film.  The scenes of torture, while explicit, are mercifully short, and far less troubling say than those of Twelve Years A Slave.  The chase scenes are well done. The local setting, the wall, the streets, the people –it was filmed in Nablus and Nazareth, are entirely authentic.  The boyish joking — there’s even one off-color joke about an Imam!– strike just the right note.  The love scenes between Omar [] and Nadia [] never move much beyond fingers touching yet are so intense we almost become shy ourselves in watching. Many interesting issues are raised, of course: who can be trusted? Can one stay apart from the major players, and survive?  Why is the young woman never asked about a claim made about her? (And how typical might this be in such societies?)  The unexpected double-double cross and final denouement will certainly measure up to what we look forward to in such films.

It was nominated for best foreign film at the Oscars this year, and lost to the rather self-regarding Italian The Grande Bellezza, for reasons I believe follow those of Mr Addiego. The voters couldn’t see the movie for the imagined message.

Hany Abu-Assad was known previously for his 2005, Paradise Now, and 2002 Rana’s Wedding,  both widely appreciated.

Keep Omar high on your list of movies to see this year. You’ll be thrilled — as well as informed.  Yes, that wall is high.