‘Omar’: Director’s latest a notch below his excellent ‘Paradise Now’

Palestinian filmmaker Hany Abu-Assad pulled off a tricky balancing act with his 2005 film “Paradise Now.”

In profiling the everyday lives of a couple of would-be suicide bombers, the movie created an eerie sense of authenticity (and occasional absurdity) while not grinding a heavy political ax. It picked up an Oscar nomination for Best Foreign-Language Film in the process.

Abu-Assad’s new film, “Omar,” tries something similar: to humanize people stuck in the cycle of violence in the Palestinian community of the West Bank.

The central figure here is a none-too-bright young man, Omar (Adam Bakri), who is a kind of budding revolutionary. He’s not affiliated with a known terrorist group; it’s more like he’s been hanging out with his friends who’ve gradually become more radical of late.

Led by the serious Tarek (Eyad Hourani), the amateurs will end up killing an Israeli guard one night, an act that brings them to the attention of an Israeli investigator (Waleed Zuaiter, a deft actor). As though to emphasize Omar’s hapless miscasting as a freedom fighter/terrorist, his actions are largely guided by his crush on Tarek’s sister Nadia (Leem Lubany), and his own jealous mind.

Like Abu-Assad’s previous feature, “Omar” picked up an Oscar nomination in the Foreign-Language category. You can see the voter appeal: global issue, human approach, dramatic punch.

Abu-Assad is a skilled filmmaker, but “Omar” is significantly less daring than “Paradise Now” — really a middlebrow treatment of an automatically invigorating subject.

The final action is a “shocker” meant to be open-ended and thought-provoking, but it leaves behind a faint taste of smugness.

(Looking at the Oscar list, the absence of “The Past,” “Gloria” and especially “Wadjda” are particularly galling in the light of “Omar” getting a nod.)

The film does have one powerful image: the wall, meant to contain and separate Palestinians from Israelis.

“Omar” begins with the wall as our protagonist scales it with a rope. This is the first of many such ascents and descents, travels that are a part of Omar’s life but which (so commonplace has the presence of the wall become) are never remarked upon.

This gray, graffitied boundary is the mute co-star of the movie, and its sheer presence is more troubling than the standard-issue melodrama that boils around it.

“Omar”

This Oscar nominee in the foreign-language film category looks at a Palestinian man whose commitment to some haphazard attacks on the Israeli authorities is complicated by his affection for the sister of his cell leader. This earnest story is disappointingly middlebrow in its treatment of a serious subject; director Hany Abu-Assad falls short of his previous Oscar nominee, “Paradise Now.” In Arabic, with English subtitles.

Rated: Not rated; probably R for violence.

Showing: Sundance.

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