Hany Abu-Assad returns to form with “Omar,” his first Palestinian feature since the justifiably lauded “Paradise Now.” While the first half reps an engrossing if unremarkable take on the Catch-22 situation faced by young Palestinians sick of constant humiliation, the second sharpens the sting with increasing tension and bitterness, revealing secret betrayals and attempts at self-protection that cause the characters further harm. Deliberately ambiguous in how it approaches the inexorable nexus of violence, “Omar” will trouble those looking for condemnation rather than the messiness of humanity. Travel, including theatrical play, is certain but unlikely to reach the success of his earlier pic.

Scaling the separation wall becomes an unexceptional event in the life of baker Omar (Adam Bakri), notwithstanding the need to dodge occasional Israeli bullets and patrol cars.  He’s in love with high schooler Nadja (Leem Lubany), the younger sis of pal Tarek (Eyad Hourani). Together with Amjad (Samer Bisharat), the three guys form a plan to kill an Israeli soldier — it’s a senseless act that will do nothing for the cause, but the desire for any feeling of control is too powerful for them to ignore. Amjad, the joker of the trio, does the shooting and brings down a man.

Israeli revenge is swift, and the next day a dramatic chase results in Omar’s detention, where he’s strung up and savagely beaten. He’s also befriended by a snitch who coaxes out a statement, “I will never confess,” which in military terms amounts to a confession. Agent Rami (Waleed F. Zuaiter) offers Omar a way out: Find Tarek, whom they suspect was the shooter, and he can go free.

Omar has no intention of ratting on his friend and possible future brother-in-law; instead, he joins Tarek’s plan to ambush soldiers in a cafe. Things go awry, and it becomes clear there’s a traitor among them — but who? Oddly, Omar gets a second reprieve from Rami and is allowed out if he leads them to Tarek, though this time Omar’s reason for accepting the commission is to find out for himself who the informer is, and to convince Nadja he’s not a stoolpigeon.

As he did with “Paradise Now,” Abu-Assad refuses to demonize characters for their poor choices. Only too aware of the crushing toll of the Occupation on Palestinians, he shows men (the film is male-centric) making tragic, often self-destructive decisions as a result of an inescapable environment of degradation and violence. With “Omar” he’s finessed the profile, depicting how the weaknesses that make us human, especially love, can lead, in such a place, to acts of betrayal. It’s as if he’s taken thematic elements from Westerns and film noir, using the fight for dignity and an atmosphere of doubt to explain rather than excuse heinous actions. Viewers with a firm moral compass, who see killing as an act always to be condemned, won’t need “Omar” to tell them what’s right and wrong.

A subtle undercurrent exists in the visuals, which use cheerful billboard advertising, such as a mattress company with a man happily asleep, or a social responsibility pitch for “planting hope,” as casual background images to reinforce the disconnect between phony optimism and reality. Perhaps the sense of deja vu in the pic’s first half is necessary for the power of the second, in which treacheries are constantly guessed at and possibilities of redemption dissolve in a situation with no exit.

Apart from the superb Waleed F. Zuaiter (also producing), the attractive cast consists of actors making their feature debuts. Bakri’s steeliness doesn’t completely cover Omar’s vulnerability, made more acute by his love for Nadja. Wisely, Abu-Assad puts plenty of humorous lines in his characters’ mouths, revealing an ear for natural dialogue and the daily jokes friends exchange no matter what pressures they’re under. Lubany’s fresh girlishness acts as an important reminder that these are people barely touching adulthood, highlighting the “Romeo and Juliet” quality of the romance angle (which of course has its own betrayals).

All the actors have an easy confidence that’s vital for their frequent closeups, underscoring their humanity rather than their function as illustrations of a well-known conflict. Location work in the West Bank nicely captures the unnatural divisions forced on the populace by the wall, which separates Palestinians from each other as much as from Israel.

Film Review: ‘Omar’

Reviewed at Cannes Film Festival (Un Certain Regard), May 20, 2013. Running time: 98 MIN.

  • Production: (Palestine) A Zbros production, in association with Dubai Entertainment and Media Organization, Enjaaz. (International sales: the Match Factory, Cologne, Germany.) Produced by Hany Abu-Assad, Waleed F. Zuaiter, David Gerson. Executive producers, Abbas F. “Eddy” Zuaiter, Ahmad F. Zuaiter, Waleed Al-Ghafari, Zahi Khouri, Farouq A. Zuaiter, Suhail A. Sikhtian.
  • Crew: Directed, written by Hany Abu-Assad. Camera (color, widescreen), Ehab Assal; editors, Martin Brinkler, Eyas Salman; production designer, Nael Kanj; costume designer, Hamada Atallah; sound (Dolby Digital), Raja Dubayah; line producer, Baher Agbariya; assistant director, Enas Al-Muthaffar; casting, Juna Sulieman.
  • With: Adam Bakri, Leem Lubany, Waleed F. Zuaiter, Samer Bisharat, Eyad Hourani. (Arabic, Hebrew dialogue)