The secret, seductive ingredient in "Omar" -- a nominee for this year's foreign language film Oscar and a watershed moment in Palestinian cinema -- is humor. Director Hany Abu-Assad, who also helmed 2005's Oscar-nominated "Paradise Now," certainly uses the Arab-Israeli conflict to generate dramatic urgency and righteous indignation. His movie is deadly serious. But his characters are also people first, not just cogs in the perpetual-motion machine of Middle Eastern angst. A little comedy helps put flesh on the tragedy. The upshot is honesty.
In fact, politics are almost incidental to what Abu-Assad is trying to say, in his story of loyalties, betrayal and oppression. At the center is a young, indignant Palestinian named Omar (Adam Bakri), who regularly scales the separation wall between his bakery job and his friends in the West Bank. "How did you get here today?" he's asked. "I took the noon flight; the morning one was full." "Business or coach?" jokes his friend Amjad (Samer Bisharat) who, like Omar, is in love with Nadja (Leem Lubany), sister of their friend Tarek (Eyad Hourani), who cajoles Amjad into doing his dead-on impersonation of Marlon Brando. So it goes -- casual, comfortable, and universal, nearly. These are young men with futures. They just happen to be planning an attack on the Israelis, because those futures feel so bleak.
Their operation, on a military installation, is a cheap success. Omar is arrested, tortured, left with no options beside life in prison or turning in his friends. Will he? Amid the intrigues, Omar's complicated relationship with his Israeli "handler" (Waleed F. Zuiater) and several exhilarating foot chases through labyrinthine Palestinian villages, "Omar" is a real thriller, a snake pit of plot twists, in which the perspectives shift, destinations change and the moral universe spins and sways. One thing is never in doubt: The gifted Abu-Assad has got his viewer by the throat.
PLOT In the occupied territories, a young member of the resistance is torn between the political and personal. Unrated (violence, adult content)
CAST Adam Bakri, Leem Lubany, Eyad Hourani, Samer Bisharat
BOTTOM LINE Propulsive, complex, enormously entertaining. (In Arabic and Hebrew with English subtitles)